By Timour Azhari

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Talks between the United States and Iraq on ending the U.S.-led military coalition in the country may not be concluded until after U.S. presidential elections in November, a senior Iraqi government official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Washington and Baghdad in January initiated talks to reassess the U.S-led coalition in Iraq, formed in 2014 to help fight Islamic State after the extremist Sunni Muslim militant group overran large parts of the country.

The decision came after U.S forces and Shi’ite armed groups had engaged in tit-for-tat attacks amid regional conflict linked to Israel’s war in Gaza.

Those attacks have now ceased for over a month to allow breathing space for the negotiations.

Backed by Shi’ite Muslim parties and armed groups, the government in Baghdad, a rare ally of both Tehran and Washington, is trying to prevent the country again becoming a battlefield for foreign powers.

The technical talks via a joint military commission are seen by politicians as a way to buy time amid differing views over how the countries’ military relationship should evolve.

Hardline Iraqi Shi’ite armed groups have called for an immediate exit of U.S. forces while more moderate Shi’ite factions and Sunni and Kurdish parties are concerned their departure could lead to a power vacuum.

Washington says the coalition’s mission needs to be reassessed in light of Islamic State’s 2017 defeat in Iraq but does not view the talks as necessarily entailing a withdrawal of U.S. military advisers from the country.

The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, toppling President Saddam Hussein before exiting the country in 2011.

The U.S. returned in 2014 at the head of an international coalition to fight ISIS and there are currently around 2,500 American troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria on an advise and assist mission.

“I don’t think the Americans want a full withdrawal. That is clear,” former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a moderate member of Iraq’s ruling Shi’ite Coordination Framework, told journalists last week.

“Also, I do not thing there is an Iraqi desire among the political forces to dispense entirely with the Americans – even though there is a feeling today that their presence at this time causes more problems than solutions.”

(Reporting by Timour Azhari, Editing by Ed Osmond)

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