Iraqi Politicians Mull Measure to Expel US Troops After Trump’s ‘Watch Iran’ Comment

By Patrick Goodenough | February 5, 2019 | 4:14am EST
A U.S. Marine talks to partner forces during counter-IED training at Al-Taqaddum, Iraq on January 31, 2018. As part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the mission to defeat ISIS, some 5,000 U.S. personnel are in Iraq, helping to train national forces. (Photo: U.S. Army/Spc. Shannon Westpfahl)

( – Politicians in Iraq – where the leading parties are more supportive of Iran than the U.S. – are responding coldly to President Trump’s remark that he wants to keep American troops in Iraq to keep an eye on Iran.

The deputy speaker of parliament, a member of the largest bloc in the legislature, announced plans to introduce legislation to expel the estimated 5,000 U.S. military personnel from Iraq.

The measure would terminate a security agreement concluded with the U.S. in 2008, ending “the presence of American military trainers and advisors and foreigners on Iraqi soil,” Hassan Karim al-Kaabi said in a statement.

Iraqi President Barham Saleh, whose position is largely ceremonial, said the U.S. has not asked permission to use its bases in Iraq to keep watch on Iran, and should stick to combating ISIS terrorism.

He told a forum in Baghdad that under a separate bilateral agreement signed with Washington in 2008, the U.S. undertook not to use Iraq as a launchpad to attack others.

Saleh was referring to the “strategic framework agreement” negotiated in the closing months of the George W. Bush administration, which said, “The United States shall not use Iraqi land, sea, and air as a launching or transit point for attacks against other countries; nor seek or request permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq.”

Other politicians expressing opposition to the notion of the U.S. troops in Iraq having an Iran focus included former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who leads the third-biggest bloc in parliament.

In an interview aired Sunday, Trump told CBS’ “Face the Nation” one of the reasons he wanted to keep U.S. personnel in Iraq after the Syria troop withdrawal was “to watch Iran,” which he characterized as “the number one terrorist nation in the world,” responsible for problems across the region.

A U.S. soldier waits while a CH-47 Chinook helicopter is refueled at Qayyarah West airfield, Iraq in May 29, 2017. As part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the mission to defeat ISIS, around 5,000 U.S. personnel are in Iraq, helping to train national forces. (Photo: U.S. Army/Cpl. Rachel Diehm)

It was the second time in less than six weeks that Trump had raised the issue. When visiting U.S. troops in Iraq’s Anbar province at Christmas, he spoke of keeping them there to “watch very closely over any potential re-formation of ISIS – and also to watch over Iran.”

After that comment, the head of a leading component of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Qais al-Khazali of the Shi’ite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, issued a thinly-veiled warning about violently expelling U.S. forces.

‘They’re asking for the immediate exit of Americans from Iraq’

In national elections last May, the two best-performing blocs were the Forward (Saairun) coalition, whose spiritual leader is the anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; and the Conquest (Fatah) bloc, including Iranian-backed PMF Shi’ite militias.

The PMF were created to help Iraqi authorities combat ISIS, and as such were theoretically on the same side as the U.S. forces deployed in Iraq for the same purpose. But they are anti-U.S. and backed by the regime in Tehran. They also wield increasing political clout since last year’s elections.

In a recent Institute of World Politics-hosted discussion, Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Pregent noted that leading figures in the second-biggest bloc in parliament (Fatah) include al-Khazali and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of Khata’ib Hezbollah – “bad actors” identified by then-U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus back in 2007, at a time when “Iran had become the biggest threat” to U.S. forces in Iraq.

Now, those same entities have become “leading political parties” in Iraq, said Pregent, a former intelligence officer who advised U.S. forces in Iraq on Iranian influence there from 2007-2011. “This is what we were trying to stop in 2007.”

Pregent recalled how, as soon as President Obama signaled his intention to withdraw the troops from Iraq, “what you started to see was immediate security degradation.”

“We have 20-year-old Americans in Iraq now, ten years later, fighting ISIS and now being threatened by Iranian militias,” he said.

“These parties are now in charge, and they’re asking for the immediate exit of Americans from Iraq,” Pregent said. “They are not there to defeat ISIS. They need the threat of ISIS to exist because they operate outside of the Constitution, they operate outside the formal security apparatus. And they have primacy.”

Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011, but in 2014 Baghdad invited the troops to return to help fight against ISIS after it overran large swathes of the country. The government finally declared victory over the terrorists in late 2017, and today the U.S. personnel are involved mostly in training Iraqi national forces.

With ISIS’ defeat, some elements in Iraq are pushing for the U.S. to leave. A recent incident in Mosul reportedly showed Iranian-backed PMF fighters flexing their muscles.

According to Kurdish media outlets in the area, the PMF claimed to have “prevented” U.S. troops from conducting a field patrol in the city, calling it “a deliberate provocation, which required us to intervene and object to their entry by blocking the road and warning them directly.”

There was no confirmation of the incident from the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition.

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