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Did Trump really violate Iraq’s sovereignty when visiting U.S. troops there?

Speaking to troops in Iraq on Dec. 26, Trump defended his controversial decision last week to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump’s surprise meeting with U.S. troops stationed in Iraq on Wednesday may have pleased critics who had long called for such a visit. But outside al-Asad Air Base west of Baghdad, reactions were overwhelmingly negative. Several Iraqi political leaders portrayed Trump’s unannounced visit as a violation of the country’s sovereignty, and at least one parliamentary bloc called for an emergency parliamentary session Thursday.

As Iraqi discontent was mounting, Trump had already arrived at his next stop on the way back home: the Ramstein U.S. military base in southern Germany.

Trump met with neither German Chancellor Angela Merkel nor Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on this trip. And yet, as of Thursday morning, German officials had not echoed the complaints of their Iraqi counterparts.

So why did Trump’s troop visits disgruntle one country while apparently going almost unnoticed in the other?

President Trump's holiday plans were changed by a government shutdown, a death at the border and unsettled stock markets. (Video: Joyce Koh, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

At least some of the Iraqi discontent appears to be a result of the way the U.S. government set up Trump’s visit. According to my colleagues, the Iraqi prime minister refused to meet Trump at al-Asad Air Base after not being given notice. Instead, the two leaders talked on the phone, but that did not stop Iraqi critics of the U.S. military presence there from lashing out at Trump, accusing him of disrespecting the country’s leadership and norms.

While U.S. involvement in the fight against the Islamic State has been credited with speeding up the group’s retreat, recent U.S. airstrikes on Iraqi cities such as Mosul have been strongly criticized by human rights groups and some Iraqi politicians. U.S. strikes caused scores of civilian casualties, which are now being cited by those campaigning to kick all remaining U.S. service members out of the country. Amid those tensions, Trump’s not-so-diplomatic visit reinforced a perception that the United States is behaving as if it is still occupying Iraq.

“Visiting a military base in Iraq and not meeting any Iraqi officials is a good way to increase the risks that we don’t have much of a military presence at all in Iraq for very long,” said a senior anti-Islamic State coalition official, who did not want to be named. The official went on to describe the decision as “tone-deaf” and said it “suggests they do not even understand the basis on which we have a coalition military presence in Iraq. It’s all entirely with the consent of the Iraqi government.”

U.S. troops can be in Iraq legally only as long as the Iraqi government requests their support. When President George W. Bush moved to withdraw U.S. combat troops from the country, Iraq and the United States in 2008 reached a broad security agreement that gave U.S. service members immunity from Iraqi jurisdiction and other powers.

That agreement expired Dec. 31, 2011, and contrary to U.S. optimism that a new, similar arrangement would be approved by the Iraqi parliament to keep some U.S. combat troops in the country, the Iraqis refused to accept the standard U.S. terms regarding legal protections for U.S. service members. As a way out of the dilemma, the Iraqi prime minister offered President Barack Obama assurances without parliamentary approval, but the Obama administration argued that parliamentary approval was crucial. Amid fears that U.S. troops could end up being tried in Iraqi courts, Obama decided to withdraw all remaining troops in accordance with the agreement reached under the Bush administration.

But three years later, amid the rapid ascent of the Islamic State militant group, the U.S. president accepted the same assurances that the Iraqis had offered U.S. forces in 2011. This time, Obama accepted the diplomatic notes that had previously been considered too volatile, and U.S. soldiers returned to Iraq.

Executive assurances provided without the approval of parliament are still the legal basis for the U.S. presence in Iraq, apart from a Strategic Framework Agreement from 2008, and that is unlikely to change with a U.S. president more interested in winding down rather than expanding operations. Any draft deal could also be derailed by the Iraqi side, which U.S. officials have recently accused of turning a blind eye to the proliferation of forces aligned with neighboring Iran.

Trump said during his visit to al-Asad Air Base on Wednesday that he would keep U.S. troops in Iraq, from where they could potentially reenter Syria in case the Islamic State gains new traction. But legally, that is not up to the U.S. president to decide.

Negotiations on a longer-term U.S.-Iraqi military agreement, reported last spring, so far do not appear to have resulted in a breakthrough. The absence of a deal has made the U.S. government more vulnerable to accusations of violating Iraqi sovereignty, and Trump’s Wednesday visit showed that the perceived legal gray zone could also play into the hands of leaders opposed to U.S. interests.

In Germany, where 42 percent of respondents said in a survey this summer that U.S. troops should leave the country, Trump’s brief stop was perceived with fewer suspicions Thursday. For anyone with questions about why more than 30,000 U.S. troops are still based in the country, the German government has an explainer at hand on the complex web of agreements struck among Germany, the United States and other NATO partners in recent decades.

The Germans have a name for that kind of agreement: Truppenstationierungsrecht, meaning law governing the stationing of troops. Trump and the German government might disagree on multiple fronts, but Germany’s Truppenstationierungsrecht and its diplomatic law and norms offered some clear guidance this week: The U.S. commander in chief may visit his troops whenever he likes.

Tamer El-Ghobashy contributed to this report.

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