There are more than 5,000 American troops in Iraq now. Last month, the top US general for the Middle East said he believed the US will keep a smaller but enduring presence in the country.
President Donald Trump has reaffirmed his plan to withdraw all US troops from Iraq as quickly as possible as he met with the prime minister of Iraq to discuss ways to rein in pro-Iran militias in the country and counter residual threats from Daesh sleeper cells.
“We look forward to the day when we don’t have to be there,” Trump said on Thursday during an Oval Office meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi.
“We were there and now we're getting out. We’ll be leaving shortly and the relationship is very good. We’re making very big oil deals. Our oil companies are making massive deals ... We’re going to be leaving and hopefully we’re going to be leaving a country that can defend itself.”
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Asked about a timetable for a full withdrawal, the president turned to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who replied: “As soon as we can complete the mission. The president has made very clear he wants to get our forces down to the lowest level as quickly as we possibly can. That’s the mission he’s given us and we’re working with the Iraqis to achieve that.”
Marine General Frank McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, said he believes the Iraqis welcome the US and coalition troops, especially in the ongoing fight to keep Daesh fighters from taking hold of the country again.
McKenzie has not said how many US troops might stay. But he said Iraqi conventional forces now operate on their own. US and coalition forces continue to conduct training and counterterrorism operations, including with Iraqi commandos.
Any final decisions, he said, would be coordinated with the Iraqi government.
Walking a tightrope
Kadhimi, who is backed by the United States, assumed office in May when Baghdad’s relations with Washington were precarious following the US killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport. The prime minister “has my ear,” Trump said.
Kadhimi has often had to walk a tightrope due to the US-Iran rivalry. Asked if he was bringing any messages from Tehran following a recent visit there, Kadhimi told The Associated Press before he left for Washington: “We do not play the role of postman in Iraq.”
The US recognises the cultural and religious ties that exist between Iran and Iraq, but the administration wants to decrease Iran's destabilising influence in Iraq, often exercised by pro-Iranian militias.
Kadhimi’s administration inherited a myriad of crises. State coffers in the crude oil-dependent country were slashed following a severe drop in prices, adding to the woes of an economy already struggling with the aftershocks of the global coronavirus pandemic.
The US wants to make sure the Baghdad central government's limited resources also find their way to Iraq's semi-autonomous region in the north.
State violence used to quell the mass protests that erupted in October brought public trust in the government to a new low. Tens of thousands of Iraqis marched decrying rampant government corruption, poor services and unemployment, leading to the resignation of the previous premier, Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
Pompeo, who met on Wednesday with Iraq’s foreign minister, Fuad Hussein, said the US was committed to helping Iraq regain and maintain security, despite Trump’s desire to reduce and then eliminate American troops' presence there. Armed groups are not under the full control of the Iraqi prime minister, Pompeo said.
He said those groups should be replaced by local police as soon as possible and that the US could and would help.
The Iraqi prime minister told Pompeo that Iraq currently does not need direct military support on the ground, and that the levels of help will depend on the changing nature of the threat. Three years since Iraq declared victory over Daesh, sleeper cells continue to stage attacks across the country’s north.
Pompeo and the Iraqi foreign minister expressed hope that as the security situation improves, there will be greater economic cooperation between the two countries, particularly in the energy sector.
On Wednesday, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette announced energy agreements worth up to $8 billion between the Iraqi minsters of oil and electricity and five US companies — Honeywell, Baker Hughes, GE, Stellar and Chevron.
Brouillette said US private investment will help Iraqi's energy sector and stressed a need for Iraq to reduce its dependence on energy from Iran.
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