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Half of US-led coalition troops to leave Iraq by end of 2020: PM-designate Zurfi

Half of the US-led coalition troops in Iraq will have left the country by the end of 2020, Iraq’s premier-designate Adnan al-Zurfi has said, while a timetable for the departure of the other half will agreed upon by early 2021.

Zurfi made the remarks in his first televised interview as PM-designate, conducted by state media outlet al-Iraqiya on Sunday night.

“I talked to US ambassador and coalition officials in Iraq about a schedule for coalition troop withdrawal from Iraq,” he said.  “Half of the US-led coalition troops will withdraw from Iraq by end of  2020, while the other half will leave Iraq after we agree on a schedule by the beginning of next year.”

“Iraq does not need foreign troops on its soil.”

Baghdad invited the US-led international coalition to intervene in Iraq in 2014 as Islamic State (ISIS) seized control of vast areas of northern Iraq and neighbouring Syria. Some 7,500 foreign troops formed part of the 81-country coalition; over 5,000 of them were American.

But with ISIS territorially defeated in Iraq in 2017, US military presence in the country has met increasing opposition, particularly from Iran-backed militias and political parties.

Bases hosting US military personnel have come under repeated rocket attack by militias closely linked to Tehran.

A deadly rocket attack on the K-1 military base in Kirkuk led to a spiral in US-Iran hostility in Iraq, culminating in the assassination of high-profile Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) militia umbrella, in Baghdad on January 3. In response, pro-Iran factions in Iraqi parliament voted two days later to expel foreign troops from the country.

In the space of a month, the US-led coalition has handed over five military bases inside Iraq – most recently from al-Taqaddum Air Base in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, where US marines and troops from Italy, Canada, and Spain were being hosted.

The coalition has also withdrawn from K1, al-Qaim near the Syrian border, Qayyarah in western Iraq, and al-Sqoor base inside Nineveh operation command in Mosul.

Coalition officials have repeatedly said the decision to reposition troops was “long-planned” and is unrelated to recent attacks on “Iraqi bases hosting coalition troops, or the ongoing COVID-19 situation in Iraq.”

Washington appears to remain committed to action against Tehran-backed groups despite the handovers to Iraqi Security Forces, with the New York Times reporting last week that US military commanders have been ordered to prepare to “destroy” Kataib Hezbollah – a pro-Iran PMF militia thought to be behind  many of the rocket attacks on US personnel.

The US has also deployed Patriot air defense batteries to Ain al-Assad military base in Anbar province, and another to Erbil.

Zurfi thanked US troops for assistance for Iraq to defeat ISIS – describing Washington as a “close and faithful ally to Iraq” – and insisted the withdrawal of US troops is not an invitation for Iran to increase its influence on Iraqi politics.

“Iran is also a strong ally of Iraq, as Iran also helped us defeat ISIS, but they have no right to interfere in Iraqi politics or the Iraqi state,” he said.

The flurry of withdrawal activity comes amid months of political purgatory in Iraq, whose government has been led by caretaker prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi since late November, when he resigned from the premiership proper amid mass anti-government protests.

Iraq’s President Barham Salih tasked three-term Najaf governor Zurfi with forming a government on March 17, following weeks of contention over candidates for the role between Iraq’s parliamentary blocs.

His appointment as Iraq’s PM-designate was met with approval by US officials, while some pro-Iran parliamentary factions in Baghdad condemned Salih’s choice.

Parts of the Fatih coalition led by former militia commander Hadi al-Amiri and the entirety of the State of Law coalition led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki have voiced their opposition to Zurfi’s candidacy.

The anti-government protesters have largely dismissed the potential tenure of figures like former PM-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi and Zurfi, viewing them as members of the same establishment they aim to overthrow.

The current premier-designate has until April 16 to form the next cabinet and be approved by the majority of the parliament – or face a similar fate as Allawi, who failed to get his cabinet of independent technocrats approved after rebellion from Sunni, Kurdish, and some Shiite parties. Source