Iraq's caretaker prime minister asked Washington to work 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 anti-government protesters turned out in the capital and southern Iraq, many calling on both Iran and America to leave Iraq, reflecting their anger and frustration over the two rivals — both allies of Baghdad — 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 Soleimani. In a phone call Thursday night, he told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that recent U.S. actions were unacceptable breaches 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 U.S. forces to leave despite signs of de-escalation by Tehran and Washington after Iran retaliated for Soleimani's death by firing missiles that hit two Iraqi bases where American troops are based but caused no casualties.
Iraqis feel furious and helpless at being caught in the middle of the fighting. Abdul-Mahdi has said he rejects all violations of Iraqi sovereignty, including both the Iranian and U.S. strikes.
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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 the Islamic State group.
“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 burdens 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 U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad's airport. The nonbinding vote put the responsibility on the government to formally request a withdrawal. Abdul-Mahdi urged lawmakers at the time to take “urgent measures” to ensure the removal of the troops.
In speaking to Pompeo, Abdul-Mahdi stopped short of requesting an immediate withdrawal, allowing 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, who initiated the call, reiterated the U.S. condemnation of the Iranian missile strikes and underscored that President Donald 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 IS. An American pullout could deeply set back efforts to crush remnants of the group amid concerns of its resurgence during the political turmoil.
Both the U.S. and Iran have fought to defeat IS, and neither wants to see it stage a comeback.
IS gloated in its first comments on Soleimani's slaying, saying his death “pleased the hearts of believers,” in an editorial in the group's al-Nabaa online newspaper. It carried a photo of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, saying 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.
Ortagus said the U.S. and Iraqi governments need to talk about security as well as "our financial, economic and diplomatic partnership." She did not elaborate.
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 demand for a troop withdrawal is not universal among Iraqis. Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers, who oppose the Parliament 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 criticized the ongoing crisis involving Iraq, the U.S. and Iran in demonstrations across the capital and in the southern provinces.
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 Basra, Dhi Qar, Najaf and Diwanieh provinces as the movement seeks to regain momentum after regional tensions overshadowed the uprising.
Amid the protests 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 protests was injured and is in critical condition.
Meanwhile, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged rival political factions to unite and put private interests aside, saying they risked creating more unrest. The factions have yet to agree on a nominee to replace the outgoing Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned 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,” he added.
Kullab reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Joe Krauss in Dubai and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed.