Iraq’s caretaker prime minister asked Washington to start working out a road map for an American troop withdrawal, but the U.S. State Department on Friday bluntly rejected the request, saying the two sides should instead talk about how to “recommit” to their partnership.
Thousands of antigovernment protesters gathered in the capital and in southern Iraq, many calling on both Iran and the U.S. to leave Iraq, reflecting anger and frustration over the two rivals — both Baghdad’s allies — trading blows on Iraqi soil.
The request from Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi pointed to his determination to push ahead with demands for U.S. troops to leave Iraq, stoked by the American drone strike on Jan. 3 that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani. In a phone call Thursday night, he told Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo that recent U.S. strikes in Iraq were an unacceptable breach of Iraqi sovereignty and a violation of their security agreements, his office said.
He asked Pompeo to “send delegates to Iraq to prepare a mechanism” to carry out the Iraqi Parliament’s resolution on withdrawing foreign troops, according to the statement.
“The prime minister said American forces had entered Iraq and drones are flying in its airspace without permission from Iraqi authorities, and this was a violation of the bilateral agreements,” the statement added.
Abdul-Mahdi signaled he was standing by the push for the American forces to go despite recent signs of deescalation between Tehran and Washington after Iran retaliated for Suleimani’s death with a barrage of missiles that hit two Iraqi bases where U.S. troops are based but caused no casualties.
Iraqis have felt furious and helpless at being caught in the middle of fighting between Baghdad’s two closest allies. Abdul-Mahdi has said he rejects all violations of Iraqi sovereignty, including both the Iranian and U.S. strikes.
The State Department flatly dismissed Abdul-Mahdi’s request, saying U.S. troops are crucial for the fight against the Islamic State group and it would not discuss removing them.
Pompeo indicated Friday the troops would remain, adding that the U.S. would continue its mission to help train Iraqi security forces and counter Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
“We are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is,” Pompeo said at the White House during an unrelated appearance.
“Our mission set there is very clear. We’ve been there to perform a training mission to help the Iraqi security forces be successful and to continue the campaign against ISIS, to continue the counter-Daesh campaign,” he said, using alternate acronyms for the militant group.
“We’re going to continue that mission, but, as times change and we get to a place where we can deliver upon what I believe and what the president believes is our right structure with fewer resources dedicated to that mission, we will do so,” Pompeo said.
He said a NATO team was at the State Department working on a plan “to get burden-sharing right in the region as well, so that we can continue the important missions to protect and defend, and keep the American people safe” while reducing costs and responsibilities borne by the U.S.
Earlier in the day, Pompeo’s spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to “discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership — not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East.”
Iraqi lawmakers passed a resolution Sunday to oust U.S. troops, following the Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike that killed Suleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi Muhandis at Baghdad’s airport. The nonbinding vote put the responsibility on the government to formally request a withdrawal. Abdul-Mahdi, addressing lawmakers at the time, called for “urgent measures” to ensure the removal of the troops.
Speaking to Pompeo, Abdul-Mahdi stopped short of requesting an immediate withdrawal and appeared to give the U.S. time to draw up a strategy and timeline for departure.
In its initial readout of the call, the State Department made no mention of Abdul-Mahdi’s request on the troops. It said Pompeo initiated the call and reiterated the U.S. condemnation of the Iranian missile strikes on the two bases, underscoring that President Trump “has said the United States will do whatever it takes to protect the American and Iraqi people and defend our collective interests.”
There are some 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq assisting and providing training to Iraqi security counterparts to fight the Islamic State group. An American pullout could deeply set back efforts to crush remnants of the group amid concerns of a resurgence amid the political turmoil.
Both the U.S. and Iran have fought to defeat Islamic State, and neither side wants to see the group stage a comeback, although the current tensions could give the extremists an opening.
Islamic State gloated in its first comments on Suleimani’s slaying, saying his death “pleased the hearts of believers” in an editorial in the group’s Nabaa online newspaper. With a photo of Suleimani and Muhandis, it declared that “God brought their end at the hands of their allies.”
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker said future talks between Baghdad and Washington were expected to focus on the nature of their strategic relationship,
“We provide assets that no other coalition ally can provide. ... If the United States wasn’t in Iraq, it’s hard to imagine the coalition being in Iraq,” he told reporters in Dubai at the end of a visit to the region in which he met with Iraqi officials in the northern Kurdish region.
Schenker added that the U.S. and its partners have provided $5.4 billion to the Iraqi military in the last four years.
Top U.S. military officials have said there are no plans to withdraw.
Ortagus also said the State Department was in talks with NATO to increase its involvement in Iraq. Trump has invited NATO to play a larger role in the Middle East.
“There does, however, need to be a conversation between the U.S. and Iraqi governments not just regarding security, but about our financial, economic and diplomatic partnership,” Ortagus said, without elaborating.
Iraq is highly dependent on Iran sanctions waivers from Washington to continue importing Iranian gas to meet electricity demands, and the U.S. has consistently used this as leverage. The current waiver expires in February, and without a new one, Iraq could face severe financial penalties.
The desire for a troop withdrawal is not universal among Iraqis. Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers, who oppose the parliament’s resolution, see the U.S. presence as a bulwark against domination by the majority Shiites and Iran. Kurdish security forces have benefited from U.S. training and aid.
Protesters in Iraq lambasted the ongoing diplomatic crisis that has engulfed the three counties in mass protests across the capital and in the south.
Thousands massed in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protest movement, and many chanted “Damn Iran and America!” Large demonstrations also were held in the southern provinces of Basra, Dhi Qar, Najaf and Diwanieh, as the movement seeks to recover momentum following regional tensions that overshadowed the uprising.
Amid the demonstrations in Basra, Iraqi journalist Ahmed Abdul Samad was found dead in his car outside a police station from a gunshot wound to the head, according to a security official who requested anonymity in line with regulations. A photographer covering the demonstrations was also injured during the protests and is reportedly in critical condition.
Meanwhile, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leader, urged rival Iraqi political factions to unite and put private interests aside, saying their attempts to outbid each other in the political process had led to the current crisis and risked creating more unrest.
The competing political factions have yet to agree on a nominee to replace the outgoing Abdul-Mahdi, who announced his resignation in December under pressure from the protesters.
“Everyone is required to think carefully about what this situation will lead to if there is no end to it,” Sistani added.