Iraq has asked Washington to work out how it will withdraw American troops from the country, underscoring the Iraqi government’s determination to push through a decision by legislators five days ago to expel foreign forces.
However, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo insisted that the US was “going to continue” its mission against militant group Isis in Iraq, although it would work to develop the “right structure with fewer resources dedicated to that mission”.
The emergency Iraqi parliamentary decision, pushed through by pro-Iranian Shia politicians, came two days after the US assassinated Iran’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone strike near Baghdad airport.
During a phone call on Friday, Iraq’s caretaker prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi asked Mr Pompeo to “send envoys to Iraq to put in place mechanisms to implement the parliament’s decision” for foreign forces to leave Iraq, according to the prime minister’s office.
Mr Pompeo appeared to deny Baghdad’s claim. Mr Mahdi “didn’t quite characterise the conversation correctly,” he said on Friday at the White House.
Echoing earlier comments by President Donald Trump, he said the US strike against Soleimani was justified. “We had information on an imminent threat and those threat streams included attacks on US embassies. Period. Full stop,” he said.
Mr Pompeo noted that a Nato team was visiting the US state department on Friday to “develop a plan to get burden sharing right”. Mr Trump said this week he would ask Nato “to become much more involved” in the Middle East, but Nato and US allies have moved to dampen expectations.
Iraq has been the stage of escalating tensions between its ally America and its neighbour Iran since late December, stoking fears of a wider regional conflict. Following seemingly calibrated Iranian missile strikes on US targets that did not harm anyone, however, both Tehran and Washington have signalled a desire to back away from conflict for now.
A US official told the Financial Times that Baghdad was caught in a difficult position over the prospect of the US withdrawing from Iraq. The US believes that while Baghdad needs to send tough messages in public demanding immediate withdrawal, the Iraqi military was giving positive messages in private that it wanted the US troops to stay on.
Iraq’s most revered Shia Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Friday denounced foreign powers interfering in Iraq.
“The latest dangerous aggressive acts, which are repeated violations of Iraqi sovereignty, are a part of the deteriorating [regional] situation,” Ayatollah Sistani said in a sermon delivered by his representative in Kerbala
American forces returned to Iraq in 2014, after withdrawing in 2011, to help the Iraqi government fight the Sunni extremist militant group Isis, alongside other foreign armies. The anti-Isis coalition said last weekend it had suspended its operations to focus on protecting its forces from Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias.
Following Soleimani’s killing, Iran declared its intention to push America out of the region. A US withdrawal from Iraq would be a win for Iran and a heavy blow to Washington’s waning influence in a country into which it has poured hundreds of billions since the US-led 2003 invasion to oust dictator Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi parliament’s vote was non-binding but the decision was supported by Mr Abdul Mahdi, who “wants the troops to leave because he thinks that Iraq can avoid escalation if there [are] no troops,” said Mohammed Radhi, professor of political science at Nahrain University.
Mr Abdul Mahdi resigned as prime minister in late November after overseeing a brutal crackdown against anti-government protests which began in early October, but political blocs have not yet nominated a replacement.
Demonstrators returned to the streets in Baghdad and cities across southern Iraq on Friday, chanting slogans against both America and Iran.
The latest US-Iran escalation started after a rocket assault on an Iraqi base killed an American contractor at the end of December. That triggered US air strikes against Kata’ib Hizbollah, the Iraqi paramilitary which Washington blamed for the attack. The US bombing killed some 25 Kata’ib fighters, motivating militiamen and their supporters to attack the US embassy in Baghdad on December 29.
Five days later, an American drone strike killed Soleimani. Iran responded with a series of ballistic missiles that hit sprawling Iraqi bases hosting American troops.