Written by Edward Wong and Megan Specia
The State Department on Friday rebuffed the Iraqi government’s request to begin discussions on pulling out troops, saying that any U.S. officials going to Baghdad during a state of heightened tensions would not discuss a “troop withdrawal,” as the Iraqi prime minister had requested. Instead, discussions would be about the “appropriate force posture in the Middle East.”
The statement from Washington was a direct rebuttal to Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi of Iraq and was certain to add to the friction between the two nations.
The prime minister said earlier Friday that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to send a delegation from the United States to discuss steps for the withdrawal of the approximately 5,200 U.S. troops from his country, in the aftermath of a deadly U.S. military strike ordered by President Donald Trump that many Iraqis say violated their country’s sovereignty.
“We are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is,” Pompeo said at a news conference after the State Department had made its announcement. He stressed that the mission of the United States in Iraq was to train Iraqi forces to fight the Islamic State group, and “we’re going to continue that mission.”
“But as times change and we get to a place where we can deliver up on what I believe and the president believes is our right structure, with fewer resources dedicated to that mission, we will do so,” he added.
Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also announced new sanctions on Iranian officials and on a few companies, including two in China, involved in the production and export of Iranian steel and other metals. The Trump administration had already imposed major sanctions on Iran’s metals industry after Trump’s withdrawal in 2018 from a landmark nuclear agreement with Iran, so analysts said the new sanctions would have little additional impact.
Iraqi lawmakers voted Sunday to expel U.S. forces after the U.S. drone strike that killed 10 people in a two-car convoy, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander; four of his Iranian aides; and five Iraqis, including a senior militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The prime minister has not signed the bill yet, but had been criticizing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq since a series of recent actions by the U.S. military.
The killing caused widespread outrage in Iraq, where neighboring Iran has great influence, and its consequences continue to ripple across the Middle East. Iraqi officials said the United States had violated the sovereignty of their nation, both with that attack and with airstrikes on Dec. 29 on five sites in Iraq and Syria that left at least 25 members of the militia dead and at least 50 wounded. U.S. officials say those strikes were in response to the death of an American interpreter in Iraq in a Dec. 27 rocket attack by the Iran-backed militia led by al-Muhandis, called Kataib Hezbollah, though the militia denied responsibility.
In a Thursday evening phone call, which Abdul-Mahdi’s office said Pompeo had initiated, the Iraqi prime minister said he had objected to dual violations of his country’s sovereignty — referring to both the U.S. drone strike of Jan. 3 on a convoy outside Baghdad International Airport, where Soleimani and his aides had arrived on a flight from Damascus, Syria, and retaliatory missile strikes by Iran early Wednesday on bases in Iraq that house U.S. troops. The missiles damaged equipment but caused no deaths or injuries.
“Iraq is keen on keeping the best of relations with its neighbors and its friends in the international community,” the prime minister’s office said in the statement.
Iraq’s priority is to “fight terrorism,” according to the statement, including violence from the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that tore through the region before being routed with support from Iran, notably Soleimani’s elite units, and a coalition of Western forces last year.
The State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, released the statement Friday that pushed back against Abdul-Mahdi’s request.
“Our military presence in Iraq is to continue the fight against ISIS and as the secretary has said, we are committed to protecting Americans, Iraqis, and our coalition partners,” she said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State. “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.”
She added that a delegation from NATO was at the State Department on Friday to discuss the alliance’s role in Iraq, “in line with the president’s desire for burden sharing in all of our collective defense efforts.” On Tuesday, NATO said it was withdrawing some trainers from Iraq who had been working with Iraqi soldiers fighting the Islamic State.
“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,” she said. “We want to be a friend and partner to a sovereign, prosperous and stable Iraq.”
Ortagus said Thursday that Pompeo and Abdul-Mahdi had spoken by telephone. In a brief summary of the call, she said Pompeo “reiterated the United States’ condemnation of the Iranian regime’s launch of ballistic missiles into two sites on Wednesday in Iraq that host Iraqi, American and coalition forces working together to defeat ISIS.”
Pompeo stressed that the United States “will do whatever it takes to protect the American and Iraqi people and defend our collective interests,” she added.
The summary of the call did not mention the request for a delegation to discuss troop withdrawal.
U.S. forces have been stationed in Iraq, and to a much lesser degree in eastern Syria, as part of that operation. President George W. Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, and the U.S. military has been at war there ever since. Trump has strongly criticized Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and made campaign promises in 2016 to withdraw troops from the region.
But on Sunday night, he said he would impose “very big sanctions” on Iraq if it expelled U.S. troops.
The Iraqi vote Sunday to expel the U.S. forces was nonbinding, and nearly half of the members of the parliament — primarily those representing ethnic Kurdish and Sunni Muslim minorities — did not vote. But there was no doubt of Abdul-Mahdi’s support for the measure, because he quickly drafted a bill calling for the troops’ withdrawal.
In his statement Friday, the Iraqi prime minister said that U.S. forces entering the country and drones flying over Iraq did so “without a permission from the Iraqi government.”
Since the drone strike, several top U.S. officials, including Pompeo, have said Trump ordered the killing of Soleimani because the Iranian general was planning an “imminent attack” on U.S. personnel or facilities. But those officials have not revealed any details of the intelligence showing such an attack in the works. Some Republican and Democratic lawmakers said Wednesday after a classified briefing in Congress by the top officials that they had heard little, if anything, that was new.
Some Pentagon and State Department officials have said that the threat reports in recent intelligence did not point to anything unusual, and that U.S. agencies are always aware Soleimani has plans in the region.
On Jan. 3, Pompeo was the first administration official to say there was intelligence showing an “imminent attack.” But since then, he has made opaque statements on the definition of imminence. In an interview Thursday with Fox News, he said the United States did not know when or where the hypothetical attack would have taken place.
“There is no doubt that there were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qassem Soleimani, and we don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real,” he said.
Trump ran for president in 2016 on promises of pulling troops from the Middle East and Central Asia, but he has been adding troops to the Persian Gulf region since tensions with Iran rose after he withdrew in May 2018 from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. At the end of December, Trump ordered 4,500 more troops to the Middle East, to add to some 50,000 already there. Some units were sent to Baghdad in the aftermath of protests by Iraqis at the U.S. Embassy on Dec. 31 and the killing of Soleimani days later.