Iraq Considers Expelling U.S. Troops After Trump’s ‘Watch Iran’ Comment

Barham Salih (R), a senior PUK politician who has held multiple top positions including prime minister of the Kurdish region shows his ink-stained finger after voting in the Kurdistan's legislative election at a polling station on September 21, 2013 in the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. Iraq's Kurds vote for …
SHWAN MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty
JOHN HAYWARD

Iraqi President Barham Salih on Monday denounced Trump’s comment that one reason for maintaining a U.S. military base in Iraq is to “watch Iran,” stressing the importance of maintaining good relations with Iran, while the Iraqi parliament launched a debate on expelling American troops from the country entirely.

CNS News reported on the fallout in Baghdad on Tuesday:

The deputy speaker of parliament, a member of the largest bloc in the legislature, announced plans to introduce legislation to expel the estimated 5,000 U.S. military personnel from Iraq.

The measure would terminate a security agreement concluded with the U.S. in 2008, ending “the presence of American military trainers and advisors and foreigners on Iraqi soil,” Hassan Karim al-Kaabi said in a statement.

Iraqi President Barham Saleh, whose position is largely ceremonial, said the U.S. has not asked permission to use its bases in Iraq to keep watch on Iran, and should stick to combating ISIS terrorism.

He told a forum in Baghdad that under a separate bilateral agreement signed with Washington in 2008, the U.S. undertook not to use Iraq as a launchpad to attack others.

Saleh was referring to the “strategic framework agreement” negotiated in the closing months of the George W. Bush administration, which said, “The United States shall not use Iraqi land, sea, and air as a launching or transit point for attacks against other countries; nor seek or request permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq.”

Salih complained on Monday that Trump has not requested permission to monitor Iran from bases in his country.

“Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues,” he lectured Trump from afar. “Do not pursue your own policy priorities. We live here.”

Salih stressed the importance of maintaining good relations with Iraq’s neighbors, prominently including Iran.

 As CNS noted later in its article, the Iraqi parliament announced the bill to expel American troops was last week, before Trump’s Face the Nation interview on Sunday. Pro-Iranian factions of the Iraqi parliament are constantly pushing to reduce the foreign troop presence in Iraq or expel them entirely.

CNS noted that Iran and its terrorist proxies have enormous influence in Baghdad. Some of those proxies have been known to threaten violence against Americans in Iraq, while others work Tehran’s will through the legislature:

In national elections last May, the two best-performing blocs were the Forward (Saairun) coalition, whose spiritual leader is the anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; and the Conquest (Fatah) bloc, including Iranian-backed PMF Shi’ite militias.

The PMF were created to help Iraqi authorities combat ISIS, and as such were theoretically on the same side as the U.S. forces deployed in Iraq for the same purpose. But they are anti-U.S. and backed by the regime in Tehran. They also wield increasing political clout since last year’s elections.

In a recent Institute of World Politics-hosted discussion, Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Pregent noted that leading figures in the second-biggest bloc in parliament (Fatah) include al-Khazali and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of Khata’ib Hezbollah – “bad actors” identified by then-U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus back in 2007, at a time when “Iran had become the biggest threat” to U.S. forces in Iraq.

Now, those same entities have become “leading political parties” in Iraq, said Pregent, a former intelligence officer who advised U.S. forces in Iraq on Iranian influence there from 2007-2011. “This is what we were trying to stop in 2007.”

Pregent went on to blame former President Barack Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. troops for creating the security vacuum that allowed the Islamic State to invade Iraq and gave Iran a perfect pretext for beefing up its Shiite militia forces, turning them into an occupying force nearly as formidable as ISIS ever was. He suggested one reason Iranian proxies in Baghdad are so eager to reduce the American troop presence is they do not want ISIS to be comprehensively defeated since that would remove the excuse Iran uses to keep so many heavily-armed militia units in the Iraq-Syria border region.

Trump’s desire to use bases in Iraq for keeping an eye on Iran is not new. About six weeks ago, he visited Iraq and made similar comments about using American bases to respond to threats from Iran and Syria, prompting comparable outrage about violations of Iraqi sovereignty from the same quarters of Iraqi politics.

“Iraq should not be a platform for the Americans to settle their accounts with either the Russians or the Iranians in the region,” said one Iraqi lawmaker in late December, referring to the Russian military presence in Syria.

Some Iraqi politicians were simply angry that Trump could make a surprise visit to U.S. troops in their country. Prominent Shiite politicians complained about “ongoing American violations of Iraqi sovereignty.”

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