BAGHDAD — Iraq and the United States disagreed publicly Friday over the future of the U.S.-led coalition troops here as Iraq’s prime minister asked Washington to begin plans for the force’s withdrawal.
The firestorm sparked by President Donald Trump’s decision to order a drone strike killing Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani has imperiled the mission of more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to fight the Islamic State, prompting Iraqi lawmakers to urge their expulsion and hardening sentiments against Western influence.
On Friday, Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said that he had asked U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to send a delegation to Iraq that could establish a plan for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.
But in a response, the State Department said that representatives in Baghdad would not focus on pulling out U.S. troops.
“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,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.
“America is a force for good in the Middle East,” read the opening line.
Soleimani’s killing on a slip road leaving Baghdad airport last week, as well as U.S. airstrikes on an Iran-backed militia five days earlier, has sharpened the position of Iraq’s powerful Shiite Muslim political blocs and armed groups, and they are now leading calls for coalition troops to withdraw.
Iran’s ballistic missile strike on bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq appeared to deepen the crisis. That attack fear rippling through a country that has repeatedly become the stage for proxy warfare between the two powers.
With tensions flaring, the Trump administration has come to increasingly view Abdul Mahdi’s push to remove coalition troops as a clear decision to “take sides,” said Randa Slim, director of the Track II Dialogues initiative at the Middle East Institute.
“The impression here is that this Iraqi request is being done at the request of the Iranians and the prime minister is basically acting on their orders and acquiescing to their wishes,” she said.
Iraq’s parliament took a nonbinding vote Sunday urging Abdul Mahdi to expel the coalition. Although the Chamber barely reached quorum, and many Sunni Muslim and Kurdish lawmakers stayed away after a militia group sent threats via text message, the initiative is gathering momentum in Baghdad, and the prime minister is under increasing pressure to see it through.
Also killed in the strike on Soleimani’s convoy was the influential Iraqi leader of an Iran-backed militia, known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. His photographs now adorn monuments across Baghdad, and armed groups have threatened to avenge his death by targeting U.S. interests here.
But in diplomatic meetings to quell the crisis, some foreign officials say, the tone of some Shiite leaders has been more muted. “In private [they] more practical and don’t want to see all forces go straight away because they know it would be destabilizing,” said one western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.
The U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq under a U.S.-led coalition set up in 2014 to fight the militant Islamic State group. On Sunday, the 81-country coalition announced it has paused its training activities and was redirecting its resources to ensure the safety of personnel and bases, citing “repeated rocket attacks over the last two months.”
Despite losing its caliphate, the militants are regrouping and digging in for the long haul. U.S. military commanders say that a hasty coalition retreat could imperil efforts to contain the threat and risk seeing the group become more active.
“If there is another military escalation, it will be very hard to do what’s needed to get this on the right track, which is taking some time away from this to create space for diplomats on both sides to figure out a path forward, creatively, to suit both sides’ interests,” said Slim.
To that end, European countries are looking at what an alternative type of coalition presence might look like, “to make sure that the gains against [ISIS] are not lost and that we continue to support the Iraqi security forces in their efforts,” the western diplomat said.
Ideas on the table include a smaller force with a slightly different focus, in an attempt to restore trust damaged by the U.S. decision to launch unilateral airstrikes on Iraqi soil.
The accelerating debate over Iraq’s foreign troop presence has breathed fresh life into months-long anti-government protests, which rallied in larger numbers on Friday than they had for weeks.
In Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, music blared and protesters held Iraqi flags aloft as they chanted in unison to reject attempts to turn their country into a political battleground. “We reject Iran, we reject the U.S., none of these people speak for us,” said Zahraa, 21, a student, as she pinned a message to a small stand. “Our country deserves a good morning,” it read.
More than 500 people have been killed in violence, with much of the bloodshed blamed on Iran-backed militias opposed to the protesters. Standing in a medical tent run by volunteer workers, Hassan Al-Rubaie, also 21, saw the political class’s response to Soleimani’s death as an indication of the extent to which many lawmakers prioritized geopolitics over the sort of change that the movement has been fighting for.
“We’ve lost hundreds of martyrs and not one politician went to grieve with the families,” he said. “Then Soleimani dies and the parliament turned out for his funeral.”
“We need politicians who are not beholden to either side.”
Asked if he could name any, he said no.
— — —
The Washington Post’s Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.