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US dismisses Iraq request to work on a troop withdrawal plan

Anti government protesters chant anti Iran and anti U.S. slogans under a big Iraqi flag that they carry during the ongoing protests in Tahrir square, Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. (Nasser Nasser / AP)
Anti government protesters chant anti Iran and anti U.S. slogans under a big Iraqi flag that they carry during the ongoing protests in Tahrir square, Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. (Nasser Nasser / AP)
By Samya Kullab and Qassim Abdul-Zahra Associated Press

BAGHDAD – Iraq’s caretaker prime minister asked Washington to start working 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 with a barrage of missiles that hit two Iraqi bases where American troops are based but caused no casualties. Iraqis have felt 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.

The U.S. State Department flatly dismissed Abdul-Mahdi’s request, saying the presence of U.S. troops was crucial for the fight against the Islamic State group and it would not discuss removing them.

“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,” said spokesperson Morgan Ortagus.

“We want to be a friend and partner to a sovereign, prosperous, and stable Iraq,“ she added.

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, addressing lawmakers at the time, called for “urgent measures” to ensure the removal of the troops.

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 the Islamic State group. 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 side wants to see the group stage a comeback, although the current tensions could give the extremists an opening.

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.

Top U.S. military officials have said there are no plans to withdraw.

Ortagus also said the State Department was in talks with NATO to increase its role in Iraq. Trump has invited NATO to play a larger role in the Middle East.

“There does, however, need to be a conversation between the U.S. and Iraqi governments not just regarding security, but about our financial, economic, and diplomatic partnership,“ Ortagus said, without elaborating.

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 lambasted the ongoing diplomatic crisis involving Iraq, the U.S. and Iran in mass protests 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 the southern provinces of Basra, Dhi Qar, Najaf and Diwanieh, as the movement seeks to recover momentum following the regional tensions that overshadowed the uprising.

Amid the demonstrations 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 demonstrations was also injured during the protests and is in critical condition.

Meanwhile, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged rival Iraqi political factions to unite and put private interests aside, saying their attempts to outbid each other in the political process had led to the current crisis and risked creating more unrest.

Rival political 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.

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