Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday dismissed calls by Iraq’s caretaker prime minister for a timetable for all foreign troops to exit the country, in the wake of a U.S. strike that killed top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, arguing that the Iraqi people want the United States to remain and continue the fight against terrorism.
Pompeo appeared on all of the Sunday morning news shows to discuss U.S. strategy following the strike, which also killed eight others, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a powerful Iraqi militia leader.
Earlier Sunday, Iraqi leader Adel Abdul Mahdi called the U.S. strike “a political assassination” and told parliament that the government must establish a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops “for the sake of our national sovereignty.”
Pompeo brushed aside those remarks, calling Mahdi “the resigned prime minister” and “the acting prime minister.”
Mahdi resigned in November amid sustained anti-government protests in Iraq but has been operating in a caretaker role.
“He’s under enormous threats from the very Iranian leadership that it is that we are pushing back against,” Pompeo said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We are confident that the Iraqi people want the United States to continue to be there to fight the counterterror campaign. And we’ll continue to do all the things we need to do to keep America safe.”
Iraqi lawmakers responded to Mahdi’s remarks by passing a nonbinding resolution calling for an end to the foreign troop presence in the country. To cancel the agreement that grants U.S. and foreign troops access to Iraqi territory, however, parliament must pass binding legislation.
Pressed by host Chris Wallace on what the United States will do if the Iraqi parliament passes such a measure, Pompeo declined to say.
“We’ll have to take a look at what we do when the Iraqi leadership and government makes a decision,” he said. “But the American people should know we’ll make the right decision. We will take actions that, frankly, the previous administration refused to take to do just that.”
About 6,000 U.S. troops are stationed across Iraq.
Democrats on the Sunday morning news shows continued to hammer the Trump administration over the strike, with some questioning whether the president timed it to divert public attention away from a potential Senate impeachment trial.
“Look, I think people are reasonably asking about the timing and why it is that the administration seems to have all kinds of different answers,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who is running for president, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Warren suggested that there is “a reason that he chose this moment – not a month ago, not a month from now, not a less aggressive, less dangerous response.”
“In the first 48 hours after this attack, what did we hear?” she added. “Well, we heard it was for an imminent attack. Then we heard, no, no, it was to prevent any kind of future attack. Then we heard from the vice president himself, no, it was related to 9/11. And then we heard from press reports of people in the intelligence community saying that the threat was overblown.”
Another Democratic presidential contender, former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg, also cast doubt on the timing of the strike and pressed the administration to release more information on the reasons for its decision.
“Until we get answers on that, then this move is questionable, to say the least,” Buttigieg said on CNN.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said that although it’s accurate that Soleimani was plotting an attack against the United States, as administration officials have said, “it’s also true that Soleimani has been plotting against the United States for decades.”
“When Secretary Pompeo says that this decision to take out Qasem Soleimani saved American lives, saved European lives, he is expressing a personal opinion, not an intelligence conclusion. … I haven’t seen intelligence that taking out Soleimani was going to either stop the plotting that’s going on or decrease other risks to the United States,” Schiff said on “State of the Union.”
Other Democrats renewed their criticism that the strike will increase, not decrease, the likelihood that the United States will remain embroiled in the “endless wars” that President Donald Trump has long pledged to wind down.
“I really worry that the actions the president took will get us into what he calls another ‘endless war’ in the Middle East,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said on ABC News’ “This Week.” “He promised we wouldn’t have that. And I think we’re closer to that now because of his actions.”
Schumer also argued a host of questions still need to be answered by the administration. Foremost among them, he said, is: “What do we know Iran has in its range of retaliations and how are we going to prepare for them?”
On Fox, Pompeo rebutted some of the criticism, arguing that reducing the U.S. troop presence abroad remains the administration’s overarching foreign policy goal.
“Endless wars are the direct result of weakness, and President Trump will never let that happen,” Pompeo said. “We’re going to get it right. We’re going to get the force posture right. … But make no mistake: America’s mission is to have our footprint in the Middle East reduced while still keeping America safe from rogue regimes like the Islamic Republic of Iran and from terrorist activity, broadly, throughout the region.”
As news spread Sunday morning of Mahdi’s remarks and the parliament vote, however, some Democrats argued that by killing Soleimani, the Trump administration had inadvertently advanced his goal of undermining U.S. influence in Iraq.
“We have parliament meeting to talk about expelling U.S. forces,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said on “Fox News Sunday.” “What was Soleimani’s main goal in Iraq? It was to get the Americans out, to undermine our influence. So, we seem to have accomplished what Soleimani was trying to do but couldn’t. So in death, he’s actually accomplished his goal. That turns back U.S. interests in the region.”
Van Hollen also argued that although Soleimani was “a very bad, despicable guy,” the Trump administration had erred in carrying out the strike because “you have to look at what the consequences are.”
“We don’t go around killing all the very bad people in the world,” Van Hollen said. “We have President Trump embracing Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, who’s got a lot of blood on his hands and is responsible for the death of Otto Warmbier, an American citizen, and yet he’s getting love letters from the president of the United States.”
In an interview on “This Week,” Pompeo was also asked about Trump’s Saturday night tweet pledging to target 52 unspecified Iranian sites, “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” should Iran retaliate for Soleimani’s death by striking any Americans or American assets.
Those sites, and Iran itself, “WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD,” Trump tweeted, adding, “The USA wants no more threats!”
Trump’s tweet drew swift condemnation, with critics arguing that striking cultural sites would be a war crime.
Pompeo insisted Sunday that the United States will “behave lawfully” and “inside the system.”
“Previous administrations let militias take shots at us and we responded in theater,” he said. “We have told the Iranian regime, ‘Enough.’ We’re going to respond against the actual decision-makers, the people who are causing the threat.”
Several Republican members of Congress on Sunday voiced support for the Trump administration’s actions, casting the strike as a defensive move rather than an offensive one.
“Everything the president is warning about is all defensive,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a key GOP foreign-policy voice, said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” “He is not saying, ‘Congress, I need a hundred thousand American troops to invade Iran.’ That’s why all this talk about war powers and congressional authority is so silly. … He’s talking about responding to anything that Iran may do in the future.”
While Trump has repeatedly said that he is not seeking regime change in Iran, Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of his key allies, struck a different note.
On Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures,” the South Carolina Republican suggested that regime change is a widely sought – but likely unachievable – goal.
“Everybody wants the regime to change,” Graham said. “You’d have to be crazy to want it to stay the same. … But here’s what’s missing: What would it take for them to change? What kind of change do we want? Lay it out. Let the world know that we’re reasonable. And if they don’t accept the offer to change, then, you know, you’ve got very limited choices when it comes to Iran.”
“I don’t think they’ll change,” Graham added, noting that the “ultimate change” would be for the Iranian people to “take their government back from the ayatollah.”
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The Washington Post’s Andrew Van Dam in Washington and Erin Cunningham in Istanbul contributed to this report.
Video: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took to the airwaves on Jan. 5 to defend the airstrike that killed top Iranian military commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.(REF:brownz/The Washington Post)