Iraq calls for expulsion of US troops over deadly airstrike
BAGHDAD — The blowback over the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general mounted Sunday as Iraq’s Parliament called for the expulsion of American troops from the country — a move that could allow a resurgence of the Islamic State group.
Lawmakers approved a resolution asking the Iraqi government to end the agreement under which Washington sent forces more than four years ago to help fight IS. The bill is nonbinding and subject to approval by the Iraqi government but has the backing of the outgoing prime minister.
The vote was another sign of the backlash from the U.S. airstrike Friday that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and a number of top Iraqi officials at the Baghdad airport. Soleimani was the architect of Iran’s proxy wars across the Mideast and was blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in roadside bombings and other attacks.
Amid threats of vengeance from Iran, the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq said Sunday it is putting the battle against IS militants on hold to focus on protecting its own troops and bases.
In a strong speech before lawmakers in Parliament, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said that after the killing of Soleimani, the government has two choices: End the presence of foreign troops in Iraq or restrict their mission to training Iraqi forces. He called for “urgent measures” to remove foreign forces — including the estimated 5,200 U.S. troops.
Asked shortly before the parliamentary vote whether the U.S. would comply with an Iraqi government request for American troops to leave, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would not answer directly, saying the U.S. was watching the situation.
But the added: “It is the United States that is prepared to help the Iraqi people get what it is they deserve and continue our mission there to take down terrorism from ISIS and others in the region.”
Abdul-Mahdi resigned last year in response to the anti-government protests that have engulfed Baghdad and the mostly Shiite southern provinces. Political factions have been unable to agree on a new prime minister, and Abdul-Mahdi continues in a caretaker capacity. Experts said such a government is not legally authorized to sign such a law.
Pentagon officials have said the Iraqi government does not have to give one year’s notice to expel American troops, as was required under a previous U.S.-Iraqi agreement.
The death of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in the drone attack has especially drawn the ire of Iraqi officials, who considered the airstrike an infringement of Iraqi sovereignty. Al-Muhandis was deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of mostly Shiite paramilitaries folded under the Iraqi military.
American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the government to help battle IS after it seized vast areas in the north and west of the country, including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. A U.S.-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces regrouped and drove IS out in a costly three-year campaign.
A pullout of U.S. troops could could cripple the fight against the Islamic State and allow it to make a comeback. Militants affiliated with IS routinely carry out attacks in northern and western Iraq, hiding out in rugged desert and mountainous areas. Iraqi forces rely on the U.S. for logistics and weapons.
An American withdrawal could also enable Iran to deepen its influence in Iraq, a majority Shiiite country like Iran.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Fox News that the parliamentary vote is “a bit concerning.”
“The Iranian government is trying to basically take over Iraq’s political system. Iran is bribing Iraqi politicians. To the Iraqi people, do not allow your politicians to turn Iraq into a proxy of Iran,” the South Carolina Republican said.
The attack that killed Soleimani has dramatically escalated regional tensions and raised fears of outright war.
Because of the dangers, the U.S.-led military coalition said it it is suspending the training of Iraqi forces and other operations in support of the battle against ISIS.
Also, the leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group vowed to end the U.S. military’s presence in the Middle East, saying U.S. bases, warships and soldiers are now fair targets.
“The suicide attackers who forced the Americans to leave from our region in the past are still here and their numbers have increased,” Nasrallah said. It was not clear which suicide bombings Nasrallah was referring to. But a 1983 attack on a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killed 241 U.S. servicemen and led President Ronald Reagan to withdraw all American forces from the country.
“When American troops return in coffins, when they come vertically and return horizontally to the United States of America, then Trump and his administration will know that they lost the region and will lose the elections,” Nasrallah said.
He added that U.S. civilians in the region should not be targeted because attacking them would play into President Donald Trump’s hands.
Nasrallah spoke from an undisclosed location, and his speech was played on large screens for thousands of Shiite followers in southern Beirut, interrupted by chants of “Death to America!” The comments were Nasrallah’s first since Soleimani’s killing.
The majority of about 180 legislators present in Parliament voted in favor of the troop-removal resolution. It was backed by most Shiite members of Parliament, who hold a majority of seats. Many Sunni and Kurdish legislators did not show up for the session, apparently because they oppose abolishing the deal.
“The government should work on ending the presence of all foreign forces,” Parliament Speaker Mohamed a-Halbousi said after the vote.
Killing Iran’s most powerful general — a step Abdul-Mahdi called a “political assassination” — marked a turning point in U.S. Mideast policy by elevating a conflict that had previously been more of a shadow war, and by putting in doubt the Pentagon’s ability to keep troops in Iraq.
More broadly, the killing appears to have lessened chances that Trump will achieve the central goal of his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran: to compel its leaders to negotiate a new, broader nuclear deal.
The administration also faces troubling questions about the legality of the Soleimani killing, its failure to consult Congress in advance, and the prospect of plunging America into a new Mideast war.
Mroue reported from Beirut.