Trump Tells Iraq’s New Prime Minister: ‘We’ll Be Leaving Shortly’

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 20: U.S. President Donald Trump (R) hosts Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in the Oval Office at the White House August 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. One day before the meeting, Trump announced that he will allow UN Security Council sanctions to 'snap back' into place …
Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images

Speaking from the Oval Office alongside visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Thursday, President Donald Trump said the United States would “be leaving shortly,” without providing an exact timetable for the removal of American forces from the country.

“At some point, we obviously will be gone. We’ve brought it down to a very, very low level.” Trump said in response to a question about rumors the Trump administration has a plan to withdraw all U.S. forces within three years.

Trump said American troops in Iraq are doing an excellent job of responding to attacks on Iraqi bases where they are stationed, and the “Green Zone” in Baghdad where foreign missions are headquartered.

“Where there are attacks, we take care of those attacks, and we take care of them very easily. Nobody has the weaponry we have. Nobody has the — anything — of what we have. We have the finest, the greatest military in the world. When somebody hits us, we hit back harder than they hit us. So we handle it,” the president said.

“In addition to that, Iraq has been very helpful, where necessary,” he continued. “But we have been taking our troops out of Iraq fairly rapidly, and we look forward to the day when we don’t have to be there. And hopefully Iraq can live their own lives and they can defend themselves, which they’ve been doing long before we got involved.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, present at the same press conference, said U.S. troops would depart “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,” Pompeo said.

For his part, Prime Minister Kadhimi said he is “grateful for all the support offered by the United States to Iraq during the war against ISIS.” 

“Iraq is open for American business and investment and for a better future for Iraq and Iraqi people,” he said.

“The United States helped Iraq enormously in defeating ISIS and also in toppling the Saddam Hussein regime,” Kadhimi said later in the press conference. “We are working on building a strong relationship that is based on joint interests between Iraq and the United States, that is based on economic interest for the better future of the Iraqi people and the United States people.”

Neither Trump nor Kadhimi could offer a definitive answer to one of Iraq’s most intractable security issues: the power of Iran-backed Shiite militia groups, which were essentially deputized to help fight the Islamic State — which, in turn, sold itself to Sunni Iraqis when it invaded from Syria as protection against the Shiites. ISIS was defeated as a military threat and its territory reclaimed, but the Shiite militia groups remain powerful both on the ground and in Baghdad politics.

Kadhimi’s administration made a commitment on Friday to address another lingering issue from the ISIS occupation by pledging to “deliver justice to the Yazidis and all Iraqi victims of Daesh crimes.” The Yazidis are a religious minority that was enslaved, abused, and nearly exterminated by Daesh, which is another name for ISIS.

The Wall Street Journal on Friday saw real promise in the meeting between Trump and Kadhimi, a veteran of the Iraqi intelligence service who became prime minister in May. Kadhimi is unusually well-positioned to deliver reforms, as he also has experience living in the West, support from the Kurds, and even the blessings of Iraq’s influential Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

The WSJ hoped Kadhimi could forge a durable political alliance between Iraqi factions that agree on the need to reduce Iranian influence and make it possible for the American footprint to grow much lighter:

Mr. Kadhimi wants to strengthen Iraq’s weak central government and maintain the country’s independence. Pro-Iran factions in Iraq previously blocked his ascent to Prime Minister. In office he’s sought to clamp down on the Iran-backed Shiite militias operating in Iraq.

The U.S. shares an interest with Mr. Kadhimi in preventing Iraq from becoming an outpost of Iran’s regional empire. That would threaten U.S. allies and risk a wider war. Americans also saw how quickly a power vacuum can be filled by fundamentalists when the Islamic State took over chunks of Iraq following President Obama’s 2011 withdrawal.

Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump has made clear that he wants a light U.S. footprint in the Middle East. That requires supporting leaders like Mr. Kadhimi to keep conflict under control. The White House audience for Mr. Kadhimi amid the pandemic was a strong show of American support. The U.S. announced $200 million in humanitarian aid for Iraq, which will help it weather the current economic crisis. More aid and loans shouldn’t be ruled out.

As the WSJ noted, Kadhimi is making moves against the Shiite militias and apparently gained the prime minister’s office over Iran’s objections. The Atlantic Council speculated in July that Iran might be looking for an exit strategy from Iraq, or at least scaling back its ambitions to completely dominate the Iraqi political system. 

If that is the case, and Iran is down to hoping for a draw in which both American and Iranian influence in Baghdad is reduced, it will be difficult to argue against the watershed moment being the elimination of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general Qassem Soleimani — an action Trump’s domestic opponents stridently criticized at the time. Also, an Iran weakened by restored U.S. sanctions has very different foreign policy ambitions from an Iran flush with Western cash and well on its way to building a “Shiite Crescent” across the Middle East.

Writing at the Washington Examiner on Friday, Tom Rogan thought Kadhimi might just be different enough from his predecessors to make American withdrawal feasible at last.

“While Kadhimi is a political pragmatist, recognizing that some measure of stable relations with Iran is crucial to his political stability, he is a nationalist at heart. A leader who is determined that Iraq avoid Lebanon’s plight and find its politics descend into networks of corrupt sectarianism. This has won understandable respect in Washington,” Rogan wrote.

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