US rejects Abdul Mahdi’s bid to discuss US troop withdrawal

The State Department made clear the US does not intend to withdraw forces from Iraq and would continue its fight against the so-called Islamic State.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Following the announcement on Friday by Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, that he had asked the US to send a delegation to Baghdad to discuss the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, the State Department made clear that the US does not intend to do so and would continue its fight in Iraq against the so-called Islamic State.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained that Washington was ready to discuss with Baghdad the proper mix of forces which it maintains in Iraq, but not a full withdrawal of US troops.

Earlier that day, Abdul Mahdi issued a statement, summarizing a phone conversation he had with Pompeo on Thursday, in which he had asked Pompeo to send a delegation to begin discussions on a “mechanism” for a US troop withdrawal. 

Read More: Iraqi prime minister says he asked US to begin planning withdrawal 

Thursday’s conversation, which Pompeo initiated, was the first discussion between a senior US official and a senior Baghdad official, after Iran’s missile attacks on Tuesday. It followed a phone conversation late on Tuesday between Pompeo and Masrour Barzani, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG.) 

Read More: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefs Kurdistan PM Masrour Barzani on Iran strikes 

As State Department Spokesperson, Morgan Ortagus, told Kurdistan 24, Pompeo “has an incredibly close relationship” with the Prime Minister, dating back to his tenure as CIA Director in the first years of the Trump administration. 

Read More:  ‘We work incredibly closely with the KRG;’ US State Department 

Two different views of the US 

The Kurdish and Iraqi views regarding the US troop presence—at least as expressed publicly—are diametrically opposed. Masoud Barzani, long-time head of the KRG until stepping down from that post in 2017, but who remains head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, stressed “the importance of the International Coalition’s role in the fight against the terrorist group ISIS” to a visiting US diplomat on Thursday. Barzani warned “without the ongoing support” of the US-led Coalition, the terrorist group “might reorganize under different names and slogans.” 

Read More: US State Dept. official meets with Kurdistan Region leaders in Erbil 

That is also the view among the Kurdish people. They are concerned about a US troop withdrawal and freely and openly say that they want US forces to remain in Iraq. 

The US Position: We’re not Leaving now 

As Pompeo explained on Friday, US forces in Iraq have a “training mission.” They are not combat troops, and they are there “to help the Iraqi security forces” to “continue their campaign against ISIS.”

“We’re going to continue that mission,” Pompeo affirmed. But as circumstances change, and “we get to a place where we can deliver” what President Trump and I believe is the “right structure, with fewer resources,” we will do that.

Indeed, as Pompeo noted, the State Department was hosting a group from NATO that very day “to develop a plan” for more balanced burden-sharing in the region between the US and its allies.

On Wednesday, as Trump spoke about the US response to the Iranian attacks the night before, he did, in fact, call for “NATO to become much more involved in the Middle East.” 

Read More: Trump deescalates after Iranian missile attacks 

“We have been unambiguous regarding how crucial our D-ISIS [Defeat-ISIS] mission is,” Ortagus said in a statement issued earlier on Friday. “At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership—not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East.”

“The US and the Iraqi government are engaged in a delicate dance,” Nicholas Heras, Middle East Portfolio Manager at Washington’s Institute for the Study of War, told Kurdistan 24. US assistance “is essential for Iraq to continue counter-ISIS operations, and there is benefit to Iraq for the US to stay.”

However, “politics in Iraq are fraught at this moment, and there is strong sentiment among Iranian-backed Shi’a parties for the US to leave Iraq as soon as possible,” Heras said. 

The Gap between Iraq’s Public and Private Statements 

As Trump told Fox News in an interview broadcast on Friday evening, Iraqi political leaders are saying one thing in public and another thing in private, raising questions about whether they really want—or expect—the US to depart.

Pressed about Abdul Mahdi’s request to Pompeo for US troops to leave Iraq, Trump responded, “That’s what they say publicly. They don’t say that privately,” because they know what will happen if the US leaves.

In 2014, at the height of its advance into Iraq, the Islamic State controlled one-third of the country.

“The impression here,” Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute, told The Washington Post, “is that this Iraqi request is being done at the request of the Iranians, and the prime minister is basically acting on their orders and acquiescing to their wishes.”   

Editing by John J. Catherine