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Washington rejects Baghdad’s request to plan US troop withdrawal

The US State Department released a statement on Friday bluntly refusing requests from the Iraqi Parliament and Prime Minister to withdraw troops from the country. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus stated that delegations from Washington to Baghdad would not discuss troop withdrawal with Iraqi officials.

“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,” stated Ortagus.

She added that a NATO delegation has visited the US to discuss “increasing NATO’s role in Iraq, in line with the President’s desire for burden sharing in all of our collective defense efforts.” US President Trump stated in a press conference on Wednesday that NATO needed to become more involved in the Middle East. He also spoke with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on the phone on Wednesday, who “agreed that NATO could contribute more to regional stability and the fight against international terrorism.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the current prime minister of Iraq’s caretaker government, on Thursday. The PM told Pompeo to send a delegation to Baghdad to put in place mechanisms for withdrawal of US forces following a non-binding parliamentary resolution by Shiite lawmakers on Sunday to expel foreign troops.

“His Excellency asked the US Secretary of State to send delegates to Iraq to put in place mechanisms to implement the parliament’s decision for troops to safely depart Iraq,” read a statement from the Prime Minister’s media office about the Thursday phone call.

Pompeo’s office also issued a readout of their phone call, but there was no mention of Abdul-Mahdi’s demand for a plan of action to see US troops depart Iraq.

“Secretary Pompeo reiterated the United States’ condemnation of the Iranian regime’s January 7 launch of ballistic missiles into two sites in Iraq that host Iraqi, American, and Coalition forces working together to defeat ISIS.  The Secretary underscored that, as President Trump has said, the United States will do whatever it takes to protect the American and Iraqi people and defend our collective interests,” read the American statement.

On January 3, the US assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of Iraq’s Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias. The drone strike assassination outside the Baghdad airport was the culmination of steadily rising tension between the US and Iran-backed forces in Iraq.

In response to the killings of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, slightly more than half of the Iraqi parliament convened on Sunday to vote in favor of a non-binding resolution calling on Abdul-Mahdi to remove all foreign troops from Iraq and revoke Iraq’s request for assistance from the international coalition fighting Islamic State. The legislative body’s Kurdish blocs and most Sunni MPs boycotted the session.

US officials, including President Donald Trump, have stressed that Washington is not planning to withdraw troops from the country it invaded from 2003 until 2011 and re-entered in 2014 to lead the fight against ISIS.

The US-led coalition of 81 countries has “provided enhanced training, advise, and assistance and contributed approximately $4 billion in military equipment for the defeat of ISIS,” according to a Coalition press release disseminated on Friday.

Contrary to claims in the Parliament resolution that foreign troops are no longer needed to secure the country “due to the end of military operations in Iraq and the achievement of victory,” the Coalition press release detailed ten successful operations against ISIS in the past week, including an Iraqi air strike against ISIS tunnels in Kirkuk province that was conducted “under the supervision of the joint Operations Command.”

Trump has warned that he will impose sanctions on Iraq if they insist on the withdrawal of US forces from the country. Iraq also relies on Iran sanctions waivers from the US in order to import Iranian gas needed to supply electricity. The current waiver is due to expire in February, at which point they will have to ask the US government to renew it in order to avoid financial penalties.

The US imposed a new wave of sanctions against Iran this week after the country retaliated for the assassination of their top general by firing ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases hosting US troops and equipment.

Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the new sanctions on Friday, explaining that they will target eight senior Iranian officials involved in “destabilizing” activities in the Middle East. They stated that President Trump will also issue an executive order to impose sanctions on sectors of the Iranian economy including metals, construction, manufacturing, textiles, and mining. Source