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Pompeo: US to hold ‘strategic dialogue’ with Iraq on future military presence

US officials will hold a “strategic dialogue” with the Iraqi government in mid-June to discuss the future presence of US troops on Iraqi soil, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday.

“All strategic issues between our two countries will be on the agenda, including the future presence of the United States forces in that country and how best to support an independent and sovereign Iraq,” Pompeo told a Washington press briefing.

“The strategic dialogue will be led by my undersecretary for political affairs, David Hale,” he added.

Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi announced plans for a strategic dialogue with Washington following a meeting with the US ambassador to Baghdad on Sunday.

US forces have withdrawn from several Iraqi bases in recent weeks as part of a general repositioning plan in response to successes in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State group (ISIS) and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Washington and Baghdad have had a rocky relationship in recent years, made worse by mounting tensions between the US and Iraq’s eastern neighbour Iran.

As a close ally of both Washington and Tehran, Baghdad is seen as both a help and a hindrance to the US “maximum pressure” campaign targeting Iran and its nuclear program.

“As a force for good in the nation and Iran’s closest friend, the United States has proposed a strategic dialogue with the government of Iraq to be held in the middle of June,” Pompeo said.

As Iraq’s main foreign ally in the campaign to defeat ISIS, and a major player in its national economy, Pompeo said the US is keen to protect Iraq’s recent moves towards stability.

“With the global COVID-19 pandemic raging and plummeting oil revenues threatening an Iraqi economic collapse, it is important that our two governments work together to stop any reversal of the gains we’ve made in our efforts to defeat ISIS and stabilize the country,” he said.

World oil prices almost halved last month as a result of a standoff between oil producing rivals Saudi Arabia and Russia, floating just shy of $20 a barrel.

Iraq’s oil revenues for the month of March were $2.98 billion, with an average export of 3.390 million barrels per day (bpd). By contrast, its oil revenues for the month of February stood at $5.52 billion, with an average export of 3.391 million bpd.

The spread of coronavirus in Iraq and the fall in world oil prices has aggravated efforts to set a 2020 budget, already set back by an ongoing political crisis in the capital.

Baghdad invited US troops back into Iraq in 2014 as part of the international coalition to defeat ISIS.

Since the group’s territorial defeat in Iraq in 2017, calls for a full US withdrawal have grown, particularly among Iraq’s powerful Shiite parties and militias.

Iraqi military bases hosting US troops have come under repeated rocket attack in recent months. US officials suspect the attacks were launched by pro-Iran militias.

A deadly rocket attack on the K-1 base in Kirkuk last December led to an escalation in US-Iran hostilities, culminating in the US assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad on January 3.

Tehran retaliated on January 8 with a barrage of missiles targeting Iraqi bases hosting US troops.

In response to the assassinations on Iraqi soil, pro-Iran factions in the Iraqi parliament held a non-binding vote to expel foreign forces from the country.

Over recent weeks, the US-led coalition has handed over control of six military bases to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).

Abu Ghraib, near Baghdad, was the latest base to be transferred, following K-1 in Kirkuk, al-Qaim near the Syrian border, Qayyarah in western Iraq, al-Sqoor in Mosul, and Al-Taqaddum in Anbar.

Despite the US drawdown, Washington appears to remain committed to tackling pro-Iran forces in Iraq.

According to a report in the New York Times last week, US commanders have been ordered to prepare to “destroy” Kataib Hezbollah – a pro-Iran 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.

On Sunday, in his first televised interview since being appointed Iraq’s latest prime minister-designate, Adnan al-Zurfi said the coalition will have withdrawn half of its troops by the end of 2020.

“The other half will leave Iraq after we agree on a schedule by the beginning of next year,” he told state media outlet al-Iraqiya. Source