As US president Donald Trump says he wants American troops in Iraq to watch over Iran, experts say the real aim could be to prepare for a war with Tehran.

President Donald Trump, accompanied by National Security Adviser John Bolton, third from left, first lady Melania Trump, fourth from right, US Ambassador to Iraq Doug Silliman, third from right, and senior military leadership, attends a press meeting at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on Dec. 26, 2018.
President Donald Trump, accompanied by National Security Adviser John Bolton, third from left, first lady Melania Trump, fourth from right, US Ambassador to Iraq Doug Silliman, third from right, and senior military leadership, attends a press meeting at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on Dec. 26, 2018. (Andrew Harnik / AP Archive)

US President Donald Trump said on Sunday that American troops in Iraq can be used to "watch over" Iran, kicking up another diplomatic storm and drawing criticism from within his own foreign policy establishment. 

Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Washington has kept troops in the country for different stated purposes from 'bringing democracy' to settling a growing discontent between Shiites, who are in the majority, and Sunnis. 

The US renewed its justification for staying in Iraq saying the global power would not leave until Daesh is completely destroyed from the region. 

Trump recently criticised both the US invasion of Iraq and his predecessor Barack Obama’s decision to pull out of the country, even though he has similarly announced a US withdrawal from Syria. 

In an interview with CBS's Face the Nation, Trump strongly advocated for continuing the American troop presence in Iraq. 

“We spent a fortune on building this incredible base,” said the president, bringing his usual moneywise approach to complicated international issues. He was referring to the Ain al Asad Airbase, a large US military headquarters in the Anbar province of western Iraq. 

“We might as well keep it. And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem,” Trump said. But he did not explain how the base, which is located in western Iraq, will enable the US to scrutinise Iranian activities, as the Shia majority is located east of Iraq.

The Ain Al Asad Airbase, a large US military headquarters, is located in Anbar province of Western Iraq.
The Ain Al Asad Airbase, a large US military headquarters, is located in Anbar province of Western Iraq. (Enes Danis / TRTWorld)

"I'm not sure you can watch Iran from inside Iraq," said retired Lt. General Mark Hertling, a US veteran from the Iraq invasion, who did not understand the point Trump was trying to make.  

“There doesn't seem to be right now the equipment there to give us the ability to conduct strategic-level intelligence gathering," he added. 

American military and intelligence officials are also not sure how forces at al Asad or even other Iraqi locations could play a critical role in monitoring Iran’s nuclear program or other activities, according to the New York Times.

Trump’s real aim?  

But rather than watching over Iran from Iraq, experts say Trump’s real aim with his latest comments could have been to send a message to Iran that if it did not limit its political and military activities, it will pay the price sooner or later. 

“It’s a message to Iran to decrease its presence in Iraq,” Mehmet Bulovali, an Iraqi Kurdish political activist, told TRT World. Bulovali served in 2010 as the head advisor to Tariq al Hashimi, a former vice president of Iraq.

The US has recently renewed its sanctions over Iran after Washington's withdrawal from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, and mounted pressure on Tehran from various political and diplomatic fronts. 

To tackle the US-imposed sanctions, Iran has strengthened its economic and political ties with countries like Russia, Iraq, and Turkey. 

Among its other partners, neighbouring Iraq plays a crucial role in easing the American embargo against Tehran. “Trump does not want to let Iraq break sanctions over Iran,” Bulovali told TRT World. “Otherwise [if sanctions are not effective], they will strike Iran at some point.”  

Sources close to Iran also think that Washington is either dabbling in psychological warfare against Tehran or preparing itself to attack the country. 

The US has more than 5,000 troops stationed in different locations in Iraq, according to American media accounts. But it's hard to estimate the US military strength in the country in exact numbers.

“Except the American military officials, nobody can know the number of American forces in Iraq,” Bulovali said, adding that Washington has military bases scattered around the country from Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital, to Ramadi and Baghdad, the capital of the central government. 

As Washington gears up for the withdrawal from Syria, the US wants to move its forces from the country’s al Tanaf military base to the al Asad base in Iraq, Bulovali said. 

Iraqi reaction

Trump’s Iran comments made Iraqis angry, creating a rare unity in the fragmented country against Washington. 

“Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues,” said Iraqi President Barham Salih, an Iraqi Kurd, who is considered a US ally. “It is of fundamental interest for Iraq to have good relations with Iran,” Salih also emphasised. 

Haider al Abadi, the former Iraqi prime minister, also tweeted saying that "Iraqi sovereignty must be respected. Its interests should not be compromised.”  

“Iraq should not be used as a springboard to attack its neighbours. We are not proxies in conflicts outside the interests of our nation," Abadi warned. 

But Bulovali finds Iraqi reaction “ostensible”, a lip service to Iranians. “They just want to say to Iranians that ‘We are with you guys’. That’s it.”

There are also ominous signs that Iraqi anger could produce legislation insisting Washington withdraw its forces from the country. Last month, a coalition of anti-American Iraqi factions in parliament demanded the head of the parliament put a vote in motion for the pull-out of US forces. 

Some former American officials have also justified Iraqi resentment toward Trump’s comment.

"The United States military is in Iraq to provide support for their government in their fight against ISIS [Daesh], not to be looking at other states in the region," Hertling, the former US general, said. 

Source: TRT World