BAGHDAD—President Donald Trump didn’t ask Iraq if he could keep troops here to “watch Iran,” Iraq’s president said Monday, insisting—in unexpectedly forthright language—that Baghdad would decide if U.S. forces would stay.
Barham Salih hit back at Trump in one of Iraq’s first official responses to the American’s unilateral declaration that he’d keep U.S. troops in the county to protect Israel and keep an eye on Iran.
“The troops… in Iraq are operating based on the agreement between the government of Iraq and the United States for the specific mission of combating terrorism,” Salih said in an on-stage interview by The Daily Beast before an international gathering in Baghdad. “Iraq’s constitution does not allow our territory of our country to be used against our neighbors.”
“Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues,” Salih added, to applause from the gathering of Iraqi officials, regional diplomats, and academics at the Al-Rafidain Center for Dialogue Forum. “Iran is our neighbor… We don’t want to be part of any axis,” American or otherwise, he said.
Salih’s comments reflect the popular fury here spurred by Trump’s comments Sunday to CBS’ Face the Nation that he’d keep troops at the “unbelievable and expensive military base” the U.S. built in Iraq. He added, “It’s perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East rather than pulling up.” The U.S. base is located within Iraq’s Al-Asad military base, established through an Obama-era agreement with the Iraqi government to fight the Islamic State terror group.
Trump added further insult by failing to meet Iraq’s prime minister in person when he visited here in December, instead talking to him by phone.
A senior administration official told The Daily Beast that the U.S. “will maintain its presence in Iraq to prevent an ISIS resurgence and protect U.S. interests. While U.S. forces will leave Syria in a deliberate and coordinated manner, the U.S., alongside the global coalition to defeat ISIS, will continue to hunt the remnants of ISIS to ensure their enduring defeat.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to describe the White House reaction publicly.
Trump’s comments on staying in Iraq may have been designed to reassure the U.S. national-security community after Trump’s precipitous announcement in December that he was pulling troops from Syria without giving anti-ISIS coalition allies a say and little heads-up. He made similar remarks to U.S. troops at Iraq’s Al-Asad Air Base, when he spoke of “maintaining the U.S. presence in Iraq to prevent an ISIS resurgence and to protect U.S. interests, and also to… watch over Iran.”
But his comments Sunday have hit harder, adding to anti-American sentiment in this country, and making it harder for this fledgling and fractious Iraqi government to fight a parliamentary motion to eject U.S. troops. The party of anti-American political leader Muqtada Sadr introduced the measure, and a Sadrist official at the forum condemned the U.S. obliquely, speaking of “superpowers who want to have a foothold to exploit the region.”
One senior Iraqi official told The Daily Beast that the parliament may even come back early from a break to vote for it. Sadr’s party claims to have more than a 100 votes out of the 328-member parliament, and Iraq’s leadership is worried it will pass.
“Trump’s comments have accelerated it,” the senior Iraqi official said, speaking anonymously in order to criticize the American president.
A former Iraqi ambassador said Trump’s comments “showed disrespect and disdain for Iraq and the Iraqi people,” channeling the mood of many in the audience. He also requested to speak anonymously to criticize the U.S. president.
Iraq’s new government is comprised of so many competing factions that it can’t survive if it ignores the will of the Iraqi street to do America’s bidding, the official said. Iraq’s new prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, only took office last fall, and four major cabinet posts of justice, defense, interior, and education remain unfilled, because of infighting within various sectarian blocks.
The Iraqi defense ministry has tried to quash local media reports that extra U.S. troops had entered the country, but those rumors have fed conspiracy theories of a new U.S. invasion. They may also have prompted the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces to challenge a U.S. military patrol in Mosul, a standoff that was reportedly resolved without violence.
“The patrol referenced was routine and there was no confrontation,” coalition spokesman Col. Sean Ryan emailed. “The coalition is here at the invitation of the Iraqi government and this was coordinated with the Iraqi Security Forces.”
Salih, whose long years of experience as a Kurdish political leader make him more than a ceremonial president, said he understands that Trump’s concerns about regional security are driving his desire to keep troops here. But the Iraqi president said the U.S. has other means “technologically and otherwise” to watch Iran, and that Baghdad doesn’t want to be stuck in the middle. “It’s also true for Iraq to say our country comes first.”
This story has been updated to add comment from the Trump admistration, and from the U.S. military coalition against ISIS.