President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump pose for a photo with US military personnel at al-Asad air base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – United States President Donald Trump says he wants American forces to stay in Iraq in order to keep an eye on Iran.
The US has some 5,200 troops in Iraq and they will stay there “because I want to be able to watch Iran,” Trump told CBS programme Face the Nation that aired on Sunday.
“All I want to do is be able to watch,” he said, pointing out that the US has an “unbelievable and expensive military base” in the country that is in the best location for keeping watch on events in the Middle East.
“We’re going to keep watching and we’re going to keep seeing and if there’s trouble, if somebody is looking to do nuclear weapons or other things, we’re going to know it before they do,” he asserted.
Iraq’s deputy parliament speaker quickly responded to Trump’s comments, saying the American president had committed a “blatant and overt violation of sovereignty and national will” by declaring the US would use Iraqi soil to spy on neighbours.
Iraq’s constitution stipulates that its territory will not be used to commit transgressions against any other nation, deputy parliament speaker Hassan Karim al-Kaabi pointed out, adding that the parliament will work on legislation to kick US troops out.
In the next parliamentary session, lawmakers will pass a law terminating “the security agreement with America, in addition to ending the presence of American military trainers and advisors and foreigners on Iraqi soil,” Kaabi declared in a statement published by the parliament.
The legislature wrapped up its last session in late January. It is expected to reconvene in March, after a break.
Trump’s administration has labelled Iran the greatest state sponsor of terror and the primary destabilizing influence in the Middle East. He pulled out of the nuclear deal last May, undoing years of diplomacy by his predecessor, and has reimposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
One concern of Washington is that Iran is looking to build a crescent of influence spanning Iraq and Syria, reaching the Mediterranean.
In Iraq, Iran is backing mainly Shiite militias of the Hashd al-Shaabi who fought in the war against ISIS and have gained ground politically, entering the parliament where they hope to build pressure to force the Americans to leave the country.
Trump’s intelligence chief has described the Hashd as the “primary threat” to the US in Iraq.
The president, however, has a rocky relationship with intelligence experts who have said Iran is abiding with the nuclear deal. He told CBS that he doesn’t have to agree with the assessments of the intelligence community, pointing to mistaken reports of Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction.
“So when my intelligence people tell me how wonderful Iran is – if you don’t mind, I’m going to just go by my own counsel,” he said.
US troops who stay in Iraq will also keep an eye on Syria, the president added.
He declined to put a timeline on withdrawing from Syria, vaguely saying “at a certain point, we want to bring our people back home,” first going to bases in Iraq and then to the US.
Trump is under pressure from his allies and critics to walk back his decision to pull out of Syria because of the threat it leaves Kurdish allies exposed to and because of the need to ensure ISIS is fully defeated before easing up the military pressure.
He appeared unconcerned about the risks from sleeper cells, pockets of militants, and a resurgence of ISIS.
“You’re always going to have pockets of something,” he told CBS, arguing that you don’t keep an army in the country on the basis of a few people.
And if the threat becomes a full-blown resurgence again, the US can always come back, he argued. “We’ll come back if we have to. We have very fast airplanes, we have very good cargo planes. We can come back very quickly.”
He also said the US isn’t really leaving because they will maintain the base in Iraq – “a fantastic edifice.”
Trump visited the al-Asad air base in Anbar province, which was under threat of a rocket attack on Saturday, when he dropped in for a few hours over Christmas. His visit sparked outrage in Iraq when he failed to meet with any Iraqi officials.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said at the time that the American president’s visit had broken conditions set by Baghdad. He also slammed the notion that the US has a base in Iraq, reminding the world that the military bases in Iraq are Iraqi and foreigners are there as guests only.
“There is no US base in Iraq,” he said. “There are only Iraqi bases where some US and non-US soldiers are present.”
Updated at 7:42 pm
A handout photo from Iran’s supreme leader on January 30, 2019 shows Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praying at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran.
By Amir Vahdat
TEHRAN — Iran’s supreme leader said Wednesday that any negotiations with the US would “bring nothing but material and spiritual harm” in remarks before an American-led meeting on the Mideast in Warsaw.
The comments from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were part of a seven-page statement read word-for-word on Iranian state television and heavily promoted in the run-up to its release. They also come two days after Iran marked the 40th anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington.
“About the United States, the resolution of any issues is not imaginable and negotiations with it will bring nothing but material and spiritual harm,” Khamenei said.
The supreme leader went on to describe any negotiations as an “unforgiveable mistake.” He also said negotiations would be like “going on your knees before the enemy and kissing the claws of the wolf.”
That tone is a long way from 2015, when Khamenei approved of talks between Iran and the United States that resulted in the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. The deal saw Iran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
However, that deal came under the administration of former President Barack Obama.
Khamenei said the US must deal with Iran’s influence in the Middle East and “preventing the transference of sophisticated Iranian weapons to resistance forces,” a reference to Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah and other anti-Israel armed groups.
The statement by Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, suggests more restriction by the current administration on engagement with the West.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, during a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, echoed Khamenei’s remarks, saying: “If the Iranian nation surrenders to the United States, it should surrender until the end.”
He said, however, that “Iran is about negotiation, but we are not ready to accept imposition, bullying, pressure and the trampling of our national rights.”
President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise of tearing up the nuclear accord, withdrew the US from the deal last May. Since then, the United Nations says Iran has kept up its side of the bargain, though officials in Tehran have increasingly threatened to resume higher enrichment.
Amid the new tensions, Iran’s already-weakened economy has been further challenged. There have been sporadic protests in the country as well, incidents applauded by Trump amid Washington’s maximalist approach to Tehran.
However, some have suggested Iranian leaders meet with Trump in a summit, much like North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Amir Mousavi, a former Iranian diplomat, has claimed that Trump sent a message to President Hassan Rouhani last week requesting direct talks. Mousavi, speaking with Lebanese television station al-Mayadeen, said Trump is ready to visit Tehran and had sent several messages through intermediaries in Oman.
There has been no acknowledgment of such a request from Washington.
The Warsaw summit, which started Wednesday, was initially pegged to focus entirely on Iran. However, the US subsequently made it about the broader Middle East, to boost participation.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif predicted the Warsaw summit would not be productive for the US “I believe it’s dead on arrival or dead before arrival,” he said.
Updated at 5:13 pm