- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2019

President Trump’s statement Sunday that he plans to keep U.S. troops stationed in Iraq indefinitely sparked an uproar in Baghdad on Monday, complicating an already tense relationship and potentially throwing a wrench into U.S. plans to contain Iran and monitor neighboring Syria.

Iraqi President Barham Salih said U.S. officials had not consulted with him on a continued American presence inside the country and pushed back hard on the idea of the U.S. using his country as part of a broader strategy to police Iran and curb its regional power. The rift comes at a critical time as the White House simultaneously begins a full troop withdrawal from Syria and a partial drawdown in Afghanistan, and as officials behind the scenes push Mr. Trump to take a much harder line on Tehran.

But Mr. Trump’s stated goal of using Iraq as a watchtower to keep an eye on Tehran met immediate resistance from the government in Baghdad, and some regional analysts warned it could kick-start an aggressive effort to force U.S. troops out. Iraq’s new parliament contains a number of major factions who favor closer ties with neighboring Iran, like Iraq a majority Shiite Muslim nation.

“The U.S. is a major power but do not pursue your own policy priorities. We live here,” the Iraqi president said during a speech in Baghdad on Monday.

Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, considered a relatively pro-U.S. figure in Iraqi politics, also sharply rejected Mr. Trump’s comments.

Iraq should not be used as a spring board to attack its neighbors,” he tweeted. “We are not proxies in conflicts outside the interests of our nation.”

Mr. Salih, a Kurd, also pointed to a 2008 U.S.-Iraq agreement that laid out the future American military role inside the country. That document explicitly prohibits the U.S. from using Iraq as a “launching or transit point” for attacks against other countries. It’s clear the Iraqi leader fears his nation could ultimately become the staging area for American strikes on Iran.

“Any action taken outside [the 2008] framework is unacceptable,” he said.

Mr. Trump’s plan, offered during an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” program Sunday, stands in stark contrast to the path he’s pursuing elsewhere in the Middle East. Late last year, the president said he’d pull all 2,000 American forces out of Syria — a decision that led to the resignation of then-Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Mr. Trump also will pull roughly half of the 14,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, where the nation has maintained a military presence since the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But the White House is taking a much different approach toward Iraq. During a visit to Iraq in late December, Mr. Trump said he has no plans to withdraw American forces, and Mr. Trump made the argument Sunday that the U.S. could safely withdraw from Syria and other hot spots because it had such a large military footprint inside Iraq.

There are currently about 5,000 American troops in Iraq. Following a formal U.S. withdrawal in 2011, American forces returned to Iraq in 2014 to assist Iraqi forces in the fight against the Islamic State.

In justifying his decision to leave Syria, Mr. Trump argued that the Islamic State has been defeated there. While countering the Islamic State is technically also the chief reason for U.S. forces in Iraq, Mr. Trump acknowledged he had another goal in mind.

“One of the reasons I want to keep [troops] is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem,” he said Sunday.

Iraq is “perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East rather than pulling up,” he added, noting the Iranian regime remains “a vicious country that kills many people.”

Some analysts warned Mr. Trump’s comments could inspire hostility toward the American presence in Iraq and could give fresh ammunition to pro-Iranian elements in the government of new Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi who already want to get U.S. troops out.

“President Trump’s comments help build the case being made by a parliamentary coalition … to expel U.S. forces from Iraq,” said Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

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