Washington spurned an Iraqi request to prepare to pull out its troops, amid heightened US-Iranian tensions after the killing of an Iranian commander in Baghdad and said it was exploring a possible expansion of NATO’s presence.
Seeking to tighten pressure, the US imposed further sanctions on Iran, responding to an attack on US troops in Iraq by Tehran in retaliation for the death of General Qassem Soleimani.
Iraq could bear the brunt of further violence between neighbour Iran and the US, its leaders caught in a bind as Washington and Tehran are the Iraqi government’s main allies and vie for influence.
President Donald Trump said Iran probably planned to attack the US embassy in Baghdad and was aiming to strike four US embassies when Soleimani was killed in a drone strike.
“We will tell you probably it was going to be the embassy in Baghdad,” Trump said in a clip of an interview with Fox News. “I can reveal I believe it would have been four embassies.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi requested preparations for a US troop withdrawal in a phone call with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in line with a vote in Iraq’s parliament last week, his office said.
Abdul Mahdi asked Pompeo to “send delegates to put in place tools to carry out the parliament’s decision,” his office said in a statement, adding the forces used in the killing entered Iraq or used its airspace without permission.
The State Department said any US delegation would not discuss withdrawal of US troops as their presence in Iraq was “appropriate.”
“There does need to be a conversation between the US and Iraqi governments not just regarding security, but about the financial, economic, and diplomatic partnership,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.
Trump said in the Fox News interview if Iraq wanted the US to leave, he would tell them: “You have to pay us the money we put in.”
He said the US has $35 billion of Iraq’s money “sitting in an account.”
“I think they’ll agree to pay. Otherwise we’ll stay,” Trump said.
Pompeo told reporters a NATO delegation was in Washington to discuss the future of the Iraq mission and a plan to “get burden-sharing right in the region”.
Separately, the State Department said Pompeo discussed Iran with Canadian Foreign Minister Francois Philippe Champagne as well as “the opportunity for an expanded NATO force in Iraq and appropriate burden sharing”.
The latest flare-up in the covert war between Iran and the US began with the killing of Soleimani, Iran’s top general, in a drone strike on January 3. Iran responded by firing missiles at US forces in Iraq.
In the aftermath, both sides backed off from intensifying the conflict but the region remains tense.
Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric condemned the US-Iranian struggle on Iraqi soil, saying it risked plunging his country and the wider Middle East into deeper conflict.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said Iraqis who stood to suffer most. In a message delivered through a representative at Friday prayers in the holy city Kerbala, Sistani said no foreign powers should be allowed to decide Iraq’s fate.
CALLS TO LEAVE
“The latest dangerous aggressive acts, which are repeated violations of Iraqi sovereignty, are part of the deteriorating situation” in the region, Sistani said. “Iraq must govern itself and there must be no role for outsiders in its decision-making.”
Iraq has suffered decades of war, sanctions and sectarian conflict, including the US-led invasion of 2003.
At Friday prayers in Tehran, mid-ranking Iranian cleric Mohammad Javad Haj Aliakbari said US interests across the world were now exposed to threats.
Since Soleimani’s killing, Tehran stepped up its calls for US forces to leave Iraq, which is a mainly Shi’ite Muslim nation. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said retaliatory strikes were not enough and ending the US military presence in the region was Tehran’s main goal.
Critics called Soleimani’s killing a reckless action.
Pompeo said on Friday Washington had specific information about an imminent Iranian threat including to US embassies, adding: “American lives were at risk.”
As part of recent activities in Iraq, Soleimani encouraged pro-Iranian Iraqi militias to quash protests by Iraqis opposed to the influence of foreign powers such as Iran and the US.
In Iraqi cities, demonstrators took to the streets again on Friday, determined to keep up the momentum of protests despite the threat of a US-Iran conflict.
Gunmen killed two local journalists covering protests in the southern city Basra, security sources and state media said. Ahmed Abdulsamad, Basra correspondent for Dijla TV — owned by senior Sunni politician Mohammed al-Karbouli — was killed instantly while his camera operator succumbed to wounds in hospital, a medical source told Reuters.
“Politicians and clerics…are either with Iran, the US or other countries. Our allegiance is to Iraq only, not to factions and politicians,” said Essam Faraj (54) a demonstrator in Baghdad.