Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to send a delegation to Baghdad to prepare for the withdrawal of American troops.
By Edward Wong and Megan Specia
Jan. 10, 2020
WASHINGTON — The State Department on Friday rebuffed the Iraqi government’s request to begin discussions on pulling out troops, saying that any American officials going to Baghdad during a state of heightened tensions would not discuss a “troop withdrawal.” Instead, discussions would be about the “appropriate force posture in the Middle East.”
The statement from Washington was a direct rejoinder to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq, and was certain to add to the friction between the two nations.
The prime minister said earlier on Friday that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to send a delegation from the United States to discuss steps for the withdrawal of the approximately 5,200 American troops from his country, in the aftermath of a deadly American military strike ordered by President Trump that many Iraqis say violated their country’s sovereignty.
“We are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is,” Mr. Pompeo said at a news conference after the State Department had made its announcement. He stressed that the mission of the United States in Iraq was to train Iraqi forces to fight the Islamic State, and “we’re going to continue that mission.”
“But as times change and we get to a place where we can deliver up on what I believe and the president believes is our right structure, with fewer resources dedicated to that mission, we will do so,” he added.
Pressed on the issue, Mr. Trump on Friday sounded less like his secretary of state and more like he did during the presidential campaign in 2016, when he pledged to withdraw American troops from overseas conflicts.
In an interview on Fox News, the president was asked whether this was an opportunity to bring American troops home from Iraq. “I’m O.K. with it,” Mr. Trump said. But the president also said that while Iraqi officials may call for an American withdrawal in public, “They don’t say that privately.”
Iraqi lawmakers voted on Sunday to expel United States forces after the American drone strike that killed 10 people in a two-car convoy — Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a top Iranian commander, four of his Iranian aides and five Iraqis, including a senior militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The prime minister has not signed the bill yet, but had been criticizing the American troop presence in Iraq since a series of recent actions by the United States military.
The killing caused widespread outrage in Iraq, where neighboring Iran has great influence, and its consequences continue to ripple across the Middle East. Iraqi officials said the United States had violated the sovereignty of their nation, both with that attack and with airstrikes on Dec. 29 on five sites in Iraq and Syria that left at least 25 members of the militia dead and at least 50 wounded. American officials say those strikes were in response to the death of an American interpreter in Iraq in a Dec. 27 rocket attack by the Iran-backed militia led by Mr. al-Muhandis, called Kataib Hezbollah, though the militia denied responsibility.
In a Thursday evening phone call, which Mr. Abdul Mahdi’s office said Mr. Pompeo had initiated, the Iraqi prime minister said he had objected to dual violations of his country’s sovereignty — referring to both the American drone strike of Jan. 3 on a convoy outside Baghdad International Airport, where General Suleimani and his aides had arrived on a flight from Damascus, and retaliatory missile strikes by Iran early Wednesday on bases in Iraq that house American troops. The missiles damaged equipment but caused no deaths or injuries.
“Iraq is keen on keeping the best of relations with its neighbors and its friends in the international community,” the prime minister’s office said in the statement.
Iraq’s priority is to “fight terrorism,” according to the statement, including violence from the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that tore through the region before being routed with support from Iran, notably General Suleimani’s elite units, and a coalition of Western forces last year.
The State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, released the statement Friday that pushed back against Mr. Abdul Mahdi’s request.
“Our military presence in Iraq is to continue the fight against ISIS and as the secretary has said, we are committed to protecting Americans, Iraqis, and our coalition partners,” she said. “At this time, 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.”
She added that a delegation from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, was at the State Department on Friday to discuss the alliance’s role in Iraq, “in line with the president’s desire for burden sharing in all of our collective defense efforts.” On Tuesday, NATO said it was withdrawing some trainers from Iraq who had been working with Iraqi soldiers fighting the Islamic State.
Ms. Ortagus said Thursday that Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Abdul Mahdi had spoken by telephone. In a brief summary of the call, she said Mr. Pompeo “reiterated the United States’ condemnation of the Iranian regime’s launch of ballistic missiles into two sites on Wednesday in Iraq that host Iraqi, American and coalition forces working together to defeat ISIS.”
Mr. Pompeo stressed that the United States “will do whatever it takes to protect the American and Iraqi people and defend our collective interests,” she added.
The summary of the call did not mention the request for a delegation to discuss troop withdrawal.
United States forces have been stationed in Iraq, and to a much lesser degree in eastern Syria, as part of that operation. President George W. Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, and the American military has been at war there ever since. Mr. Trump has strongly criticized Mr. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and made campaign promises in 2016 to withdraw troops from the region.
But on Sunday night, Mr. Trump said he would impose “very big sanctions” on Iraq if it expelled American troops. And since the end of December, he has ordered 4,500 more troops to the Middle East to bolster the 50,000 or so already in the region.
The Iraqi vote on Sunday to expel the American forces was nonbinding, and nearly half of the members of the parliament — primarily those representing ethnic Kurdish and Sunni Muslim minorities — did not vote. But there was no doubt of Mr. Abdul Mahdi’s support for the measure, because he quickly drafted a bill calling for the troops’ withdrawal.
In his statement on Friday, the Iraqi prime minister said that American forces entering the country and drones flying over Iraq did so “without permission from the Iraqi government.”
Edward Wong reported from Washington, and Megan Specia from London. Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad