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Iraq Scales Down Threats to Expel US Forces After Trump Reaction



Donald Trump arrived at Miami Executive Airport | Iraq Scales Down Threats to Expel US Forces After Trump Reaction | Featured
President Donald J. Trump arrives at Miami Executive Airport Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, en route to an event at King Jesus International Ministry in Miami, Fla. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Officials in Iraq have stepped back from threats to expel US forces after Donald Trump threatened to impose sanctions over the Iraqi parliament’s vote for a retaliation for the killing of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad by a US drone strike.

The military spokesman for the acting Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who met with the US ambassador on Monday to implement the decision, said any withdrawal would only involve combat forces and not training and logistical support for the Iraqi military, which have been core components of the US presence in Iraq in recent years.

Iraq’s conflicting signals and Trump’s rhetoric underscore the tensions that continue to surround the killing, which has deeply unsettled the region and left many Iraqi officials scrambling as Washington and Tehran increasingly square up to each other.

The US president’s threats to impose sanctions on Iraq that will “make Iranian sanctions seem somewhat tame”, led some Iraqi MPs to urge a softening of the parliament’s position. One Iraqi MP said Trump’s unpredictability made such a move risky when US air support in particular may still be needed to prevent a resurgence of Islamic State.

Abdul Mahdi’s tone was more conciliatory on Monday than in his speech to parliament on Sunday, in which he demanded “urgent measures” be taken to oust US forces. After meeting Washington’s envoy, his office released a statement: “The prime minister stressed the importance of mutual cooperation on implementing the withdrawal of foreign troops, in line with the Iraqi parliament’s resolution, and to set relations with the United States on a proper foundation.

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“He stressed how dangerous the situation is right now and its potential consequences, adding that Iraq is doing everything it can to prevent the descent into open war.”

By recasting any withdrawal as a potential bilateral decision between Washington and Baghdad, Abdul Mahdi is aiming to avoid Iraq being in the middle of a lethal standoff between Iran and the US, which officials in both countries and across the Middle East say could easily escalate into a war.

Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah say the removal of all US forces from the region is a main objective in the wake of Suleimani’s death. Such an outcome was a stated goal of the slain Iranian general and would be considered by some to be a victory worthy of his “martyrdom” at the hands of an enemy. However, there is widespread consensus among security officials in the region that the Iranian response would also include attacks against US interests.

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One ahead of Abdul Mahdi’s meeting with the US ambassador, Trump said: “If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it on a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.”

Cooperation between Baghdad and Washington was an important factor in the battlefield defeat of Isis but was forged mostly out of joint necessity and barely addressed the tensions over where Iraq was ultimately heading. Though US efforts to play a lead role in post-Saddam nation-building largely lay in ruins, Washington was still engaged in a tussle with Tehran for influence.

Some within the US government had begun to realise that Iran had more aegis and leverage in Iraq and in recent months hopes had gathered that a large anti-government uprising against the Iraqi government could weaken Iran’s hold.

Anti-Iranian nationalism had been one component of the Iraqi protest movement, which had also been given additional impetus by anti-regime demonstrations in Iran. However, movements in both countries have ground to a halt since Suleimani’s death and in their place has emerged a rise in anti-Americanism, which is likely to be sustained in coming months. The assassination of the second most powerful figure in Iran has been galvanising for Iranians and polarising in Iraq, where much of his legacy is written.

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