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U.S. military says it will reposition troops within Iraq in preparation for a possible withdrawal

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 6, 2020

In this Jan. 1, 2020, file photo, U.S. Army soldiers from the 82nd Airborne board a C-17 aircraft at Fort Bragg, N.C., to be deployed to the Middle East. A push led by pro-Iran factions to oust U.S. troops from Iraq is gaining momentum, bolstered by a Parliament vote in favor of a bill calling on the the government to remove them. But the path forward is unclear. (Melissa Sue Gerrits / AP)
In this Jan. 1, 2020, file photo, U.S. Army soldiers from the 82nd Airborne board a C-17 aircraft at Fort Bragg, N.C., to be deployed to the Middle East. A push led by pro-Iran factions to oust U.S. troops from Iraq is gaining momentum, bolstered by a Parliament vote in favor of a bill calling on the the government to remove them. But the path forward is unclear. (Melissa Sue Gerrits / AP)
By Sarah Dadouch and Siobhan O'Grady The Washington Post

BEIRUT - The U.S. military says it will reposition troops within Iraq in preparation for a possible withdrawal.

In a draft letter released Monday, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. William Seely says that U.S. forces will be relocated “to prepare for onward movement” and says that “we respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.” A U.S. military official confirmed the letter’s authenticity.

The move comes one day after Iraqi lawmakers passed a nonbinding resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave the country. Caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who resigned in November, backed the move, but was not authorized to sign the bill into law.

In a meeting Monday, Mahdi told U.S. Ambassador Matthew Tueller that the United States and Iraq needed to cooperate “to implement the withdrawal of foreign forces in accordance with the decision of the Iraqi parliament,” according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.

U.S. senators are expected to be briefed by top U.S. officials Wednesday on the U.S. drone strike that killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani last week, according to three people familiar with the plans.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley and CIA director Gina Haspel are expected to brief the lawmakers. House members are also expected to attend a separate briefing session, people familiar with the matter said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Department has ordered an amphibious force of about 4,500 sailors and Marines to prepare to support Middle East operations, a defense official said Monday, adding potential firepower to deal with the prospect of Iranian retaliation amid an outpouring of grief in Tehran for the slain commander.

The order was disclosed as huge throngs of Iranians mourned Soleimani, who led the elite Quds force, at his funeral Monday in Tehran. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, wept as he prayed over the general’s coffin, while he and other Iranian leaders vowed revenge for the drone strike that killed the charismatic leader of Iran’s special operations forces last week.

The streets of Iran’s capital Tehran flooded with millions clad in black on Monday, Iranian state television said, during a funeral ceremony for military leader Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike.

“Have you EVER seen such a sea of humanity in your life, @realdonaldtrump?” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter, addressing President Donald Trump. “And do you still imagine you can break the will of this great nation & its people?”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who earlier wept as he presided over the funeral, tweeted in the afternoon “bidding farewell to the pure body of the Iranian nation’s hero and the international figure of Resistance. You were assassinated by the most barbaric of mankind.”

Since Friday’s killing of Soleimani, Iran’s leadership has repeatedly vowed to take revenge on U.S. military and political targets.

Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ aerospace division, also said Trump “should order more coffins.”

Soleimani was not seen as a hero only in Iran, but was also by Iranian-allied groups in the region - including in Yemen and Lebanon.

Yemen’s city of Saada, held by the Iran-allied Houthis, exploded with millions of mourners filling the streets and protesting the strike that killed him. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a military group that also holds seats in parliament, held a funeral for Soleimani on Sunday.

Soleimani’s body was to be carried to the holy city of Qom, where a ceremony will be held five hours late, delayed by the massive crowds in Tehran, Iranian state television said. His body will be buried in his hometown of Kerman.

On the diplomatic front, at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Moscow Saturday with plans to discuss escalating tensions in the Middle East in the wake of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani’s killing, the Kremlin announced.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is accompanying Merkel on the trip. Maas said Monday that Trump threatening Iraq with heavy sanctions if U.S. troops are forced to leave is “not very helpful.”

Russia has been even more critical of the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani. Its Foreign Ministry denounced the move as “reckless” on Friday though Putin himself has been publicly mum on the issue with the country still enjoying its New Year’s holidays.

He spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron by phone Friday evening, and the Kremlin announcement of the call said “both sides expressed concern” and “that this attack could escalate tensions in the region.”

Moscow has quietly benefited from Soleimani’s death with oil prices spiking. Now Putin will weigh in on the state of the Middle East twice this week, when he meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul Wednesday and then with Merkel over the weekend.

In a joint statement on Monday, France, Germany and Britain appealed to Iran to stick with its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal and refrain from responding violently to a U.S. attack.

On Sunday, Iran announced that, unless U.S. sanctions are lifted, the country would abandon the accord’s “final restrictions” on uranium enrichment. The decision followed a U.S. drone attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

“We specifically call on Iran to refrain from further violent action or proliferation, and urge Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with JCPOA,” the statement said, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal that Tehran struck with world powers.

The joint statement also stressed the need for de-escalation in the region, where tensions have escalated to a new level over the weekend, and it condemned attacks on forces in Iraq under the U.S.-led coalition to fight the Islamic State.

China on Monday heavily criticized the U.S. killing of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani as a violation of international norms and said it would work with Russia to “maintain international justice.”

In a flurry of calls with his Russian, Iranian and French counterparts over the weekend, Beijing’s top diplomat Wang Yi criticized what he called a “risk-taking” U.S. military strike and urged a halt in the American “abuse of force,” according to statements released by China’s Foreign Ministry.

Wang and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed during their phone call to “strengthen joint strategic coordination to maintain international justice,” the ministry said without giving details.

China, which has increasingly close military ties with Moscow, has long sought a neutral position in the Middle East, with friendly relations with Iran, Israel and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

At a regular press briefing, ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China would uphold an “objective and just position” in Middle East politics but lambasted the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and America’s “ignorance of international obligations and international law” as the “root cause of the tension.”

When asked by reporters, Geng declined to say whether China would increase its security presence in the region.

“We urge the U.S. not to abuse force and the relevant parties to exercise restraint to prevent a spiraling of tensions,” he said.

European Union foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting on Friday in Brussels to discuss how to respond to the escalating crisis with Iran, diplomats said Monday, including whether Europe starts the process that could lead to the eventual reimposition of sanctions on Iran.

The unusual gathering will give Europeans a chance to coordinate plans among all 28 member states. Leaders have been reluctant to publicly condemn the United States for Soleimani’s killing, focusing most of their ire on Iran, which they view as the core threat to their security interests. But they have invested more than a year of efforts to try to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal following Trump’s pullout. Many European diplomats view Soleimani’s death as the final blow to hopes that the accord could hold together until the possible election in November of a U.S. president more supportive of the nuclear agreement than Trump.

Iran on Sunday announced that it would take major additional steps to depart from the terms of the nuclear accord, although it stopped short of saying it would significantly increase its uranium enrichment. Europeans took that as a sign that Tehran is still interested in extracting concessions in exchange for returning to at least partial adherence to the deal, rather than walking away from it altogether.

Triggering the process that could lead to the reimposition of sanctions would entail additional months of negotiations. If sanctions were reimposed, that would likely mark the end of any effort by Iran to uphold the deal.

In Washington, D.C., Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said the House should hold open hearings on the escalating tensions between the United States and Iran.

“I think there should be open hearings on this subject,” Schiff told Greg Sargent, an opinions writer for The Washington Post. “The president has put us on a path where we may be at war with Iran. That requires the Congress to fully engage.”

Schiff also said he believes that Trump’s threats against Iranian cultural heritage sites do not reflect any consultation between the White House and the Pentagon. “None of that could come out of the Pentagon,” Schiff said. “Absolutely no way.”

The United Nations’ top cultural body said Monday that the United States is a signatory to a 1972 treaty pledging not to attack cultural sites, two days after Trump tweeted that if Iran strikes “Americans, or American assets,” the United States would target 52 Iranian sites, including some that are important to “Iranian culture.”

“Those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD,” he wrote.

In a statement, UNESCO said that Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director general, met with Ahmad Jalali, Iran’s permanent representative to UNESCO, to discuss “tensions in the Middle East with particular regard to heritage and culture.”

In Washington, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway offered contradicting responses to questions about Trump’s tweets threatening Iranian cultural sites, telling reporters that he “didn’t say he’s targeting cultural sites,” according to a White House pool report. Conway also said that Trump is open to renegotiating the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran “if Iran wants to start behaving like a normal country … sure, absolutely.”

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