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During Washington visit, Iraqi and U.S. officials talk of partnership but avoid details on U.S. troops

President Trump and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House on Thursday.
President Trump and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House on Thursday. (Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg News)
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Iraq no longer needs U.S. combat troops to defend itself against the Islamic State but will require continued foreign military assistance to help strengthen its security forces, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said during a visit to Washington on Thursday.

We definitely don’t need combat troops in Iraq, but we do need training and capacity enhancement and security cooperation,” he told reporters following a White House meeting with President Trump.

But both leaders declined to provide specific information about how quickly the more than 5,000 troops in Iraq would leave the country, in line with a demand earlier this year from Iraqi lawmakers.

Asked about any decisions on troop levels, Kadhimi said “technical teams” from both countries would work out details about the future troop presence. The American president, he said, had “coupled the presence of U.S. troops to how much they are needed inside of Iraq,” Kadhimi said through an interpreter.

The official visit is a consequential one for the Iraqi leader, a former journalist and intelligence official who took over three months ago after his predecessor was ousted amid major protests. Kadhimi is now facing a host of challenges, including a major coronavirus outbreak, a crippling reduction in government revenue due to low oil prices, and widespread unrest among Iraqis fed up with widespread corruption.

Last month, Kadhimi announced early elections for June 2021.

Since Kadhimi’s arrival earlier this week, officials have sought to highlight energy and economic cooperation rather than the sensitive issue of U.S. troops. In January, Iraqi lawmakers approved a resolution calling for the removal of foreign troops after a U.S. drone killed a senior Iranian military official and an Iraqi official outside Baghdad’s airport.

The incident brought to a head long-running tensions with Iraq’s desire to manage good relations between the United States, its chief Western partner, and Iran, its neighbor to the east. The Trump administration has described Iran as its chief adversary in the Middle East, in particular vowing to use force to respond to attacks on U.S. personnel by Iranian-linked militiamen in Iraq or elsewhere.

During an Oval Office event with Kadhimi earlier in the day, Trump said the United States has been withdrawing its troops “fairly rapidly” from Iraq, and “we look forward to the day when we don’t have to be there.”

Trump punted the question about a timeline to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who responded that Trump had “made very clear he wants to get our forces down to the lowest level as quickly as we possibly can.” They would leave, he said, “as soon as we can complete the mission.”

Eager to claim that he has met his 2016 campaign pledge to lower the number of U.S. troops based abroad, Trump last month ordered the withdrawal of 9,500 based in Germany.

But even as he promises to end what he this week characterized as “ridiculous endless wars” in the Middle East, he has focused his displeasure on the continued missions in Syria and Afghanistan and seemed to overlook the ongoing mission in Iraq.

Although the Obama administration had withdrawn large numbers of troops from Iraq from the peak following the 2003 invasion, it sent thousands back to combat the rise of the Islamic State in 2014.

“We’ll be leaving shortly,” Trump said. “ . . . We’re making very big oil deals. Our oil companies are making massive deals” in Iraq, “and that’s basically the story.”

As he sat by Kadhimi’s side, Trump appeared to sidestep questions from Iraqi journalists about Iranian-backed militias, only nominally under control of the Iraqi government, that have attacked U.S. forces. Instead, he repeated his opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, saying, “We were there and now we’re getting out.”

In a nod to the scale of the challenges he faces at home, Kadhimi later acknowledged that he has limited power to make sweeping changes in his country, saying he currently has a “paper sword” rather than the iron blade he requires.

He said he needed to strengthen internal security forces that suffer from sectarianism, nepotism and corruption. But, he said, “I could not afford to go to a confrontation when my tools are insufficient.”

Although the self-declared Islamic State caliphate in Iraq and Syria has been largely dismantled, U.S. officials have said that up to 20,000 scattered fighters continue to make opportunistic attacks.

U.S. military leaders have consolidated troops at a smaller number of bases in recent months, but they still see Iraq as an important counterterrorism location and say they hope to receive approval to keep a force of thousands there for the foreseeable future.

Trump was also asked if the United States would help Iraq against renewed airstrikes from its neighbors, a reference to the recent renewal of Turkish airstrikes against Iraq-based camps of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The group, known as the PKK, has been waging guerrilla attacks against the Ankara government for decades.

“Well, they’ll have to make a specific request,” Trump said. “But certainly, the prime minister has my ear. So if he does that, we’ll take a look.” After Kadhimi noted that the attacks were coming from Turkey, Trump said that he will “be talking to” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “But we have a very, very good relationship with Turkey and with President Erdogan,” he said.