Iraq’s outgoing prime minister says US troops must leave

Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Samya Kullab
Associated Press

Baghdad – Iraq’s outgoing prime minister said Tuesday that the United States has no alternative and must pull its troops out of the country, or else face an impending crisis. But President Donald Trump countered that it’s not the right time for a pullout and that it would be the worst thing that could happen to Iraq.

Trump said a U.S. pullout would allow Iran to gain a stronger foothold in Iraq.

In a photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office, Iraqi acting Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, center, heads a cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020.

“The people of Iraq do not want to see Iran running the country, that I can tell you,” Trump said from the White House.

Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned in November amid mass anti-government protests, said Iraq wants a U.S. troop withdrawal to avoid further escalation as tensions soar between American and Iran.

His comments came just days after a U.S. airstrike killed Iran’s top general at Baghdad’s international airport. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, senior Iraqi commander of an Iran-backed militia, was also killed in Friday’s strike. His remains were brought back to Iraq from Iran to be buried in the holy southern city of Najaf.

“We have no exit but this, otherwise we are speeding toward confrontation,” Abdul-Mahdi said in a prerecorded televised speech following a weekly Cabinet meeting.

He said the “historic decision” was necessary, “otherwise we will not be taken seriously.”

U.S. troops are present in Iraq based on a request by the government in 2014, when vast swathes of the country were being overrun by the Islamic State group. But now that IS has been largely defeated, Abdul-Mahdi said, the mission has devolved into a U.S.-Iran proxy war.

Trump said he wants U.S. troops out of Iraq – eventually.

“At some point we want to get out, but this isn’t the right point,” Trump said.

Trump also reiterated that he still expects the United States to be reimbursed for some of its expenses, though he didn’t specify a price tag.

“We’ve spent a tremendous amount of money on building airports and building one of the largest embassies we have in the world. And we want to be reimbursed to the various costs that we have had. They’re very significant,” Trump said.

Iraq was barely starting to recover from the devastating four-year war against IS when mass protests erupted in October against the ruling elite, forcing Abdul-Mahdi to resign two months later. He hasn’t been replaced.

Referring to the fight against Islamic State extremists, he said: “Iraq did its part to fight in the war, and I see that any harm to Iraq will be harmful to all regional states and the whole world.”

Iraq’s parliament passed a non-binding resolution to request that the government expel foreign troops from the country on Sunday, in the wake of the U.S. airstrike. The vote was pushed by pro-Iran political factions but appeared to have the support of Shiite lawmakers from rival camps.

The session was boycotted by Kurdish and many Sunni lawmakers who opposed the decision or took issue with elements of the resolution.

Though the death of Soleimani is stoking broader regional tensions and fears of more violence, in Iraq, the killing of al-Muhandis drove a wedge between Iraq and the U.S. Officials in Baghdad consider the strike to be a violation of Iraqi sovereignty, as al-Muhandis, who was also the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, was assassinated on Iraqi soil without their approval or knowledge.

The PMF is an umbrella group of mostly Shiite militias and a component of Iraq’s armed forces.

“Politically in Parliament, there is cross-bloc support (to oust U.S. troops),” said Sajad Jiyad, managing director of Bayan Center, an Iraqi think tank. “Even people nominally pro-U.S., anti-Iran or neutral are not happy with what the U.S. has done, and believe it’s a dangerous escalation.”

“The common denominator is this was an infringement on sovereignty,” he said.

Al-Muhandis’ remains had been taken to Iran for DNA testing. They were sent back through the Shalamsheh border crossing to his hometown of Basra in southern Iraq before being transferred to Najaf for burial late Tuesday.

Thousands of mourners in Basra’s city center gathered to receive the body. Many waved banners of the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades, which al-Muhandis founded. The U.S. has blamed the group, which is separate from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, for a rocket attack in northern Iraq in late December that killed a U.S. contractor. That prompted the airstrike last week.

Amid threats of vengeance from Iran, the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq had said it was putting the battle against IS militants on hold to focus on protecting its own troops and bases.

A letter leaked to social media from the commander of the U.S. task force to Iraqi military authorities has also caused confusion among officials over the U.S. intentions to withdraw militarily.

A letter from Brig. Gen. William H. Seely III to his Iraqi counterpart dated Monday had said the U.S.-led coalition would be “repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper later clarified to reporters that there was no plans for American troops to leave Iraq. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the letter had been “an honest mistake.”

Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad and Kullab reported from Beirut.