Iraq faults Trump Christmas visit to U.S. troops

by Kim Boateng Posted on December 27th, 2018

Iraqi political and militia leaders have condemned US President Donald Trump’s surprise visit to US troops in Iraq as a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty, and lawmakers said a meeting between Trump and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was cancelled due to a disagreement over venue.

Sabah al Saadi, the leader of the Islah parliamentary bloc, called for an emergency session of parliament “to discuss this blatant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and to stop these aggressive actions by Trump who should know his limits: The US occupation of Iraq is over.”

The Bina bloc, Islah’s rival in parliament and led by Iran-backed militia leader Hadi al-Amiri, also objected to Mr Trump’s trip to Iraq on Wednesday.

“Trump’s visit is a flagrant and clear violation of diplomatic norms and shows his disdain and hostility in his dealings with the Iraqi government,” said a statement from Bina.

Abdul Mahdi’s office said in a statement that US authorities had informed Iraq’s leadership of the president’s visit ahead of time. The statement said the Iraqi prime minister and US president talked by telephone due to a “disagreement over how to conduct the meeting”.

Iraqi lawmakers told Reuters that the pair had disagreed over where their planned meeting should take place: Trump had asked to meet at the Ain al-Asad military base, an offer which Abdul Mahdi declined.

Mr Trump’s visit comes amid a backdrop of escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran, as Washington seeks to counter Iran’s sway in the Middle East. The formation of Iraq’s government has stalled as well amid intensifying discord between the Islah and Bina blocs.

Falih Khazali, a former militia leader turned politician allied with Bina, accused the United States of wanting to increase its presence in Iraq.

“The American leadership was defeated in Iraq and wants to return again under any pretext, and this is what we will never allow,” he said.

Mr Bina said Trump’s visit “places many question marks on the nature of the US military presence and its real objectives, and what these objectives could pose to the security of Iraq.”

While there has been no full-scale violence in Iraq since Islamic State suffered a series of defeats last year, some 5200 US troops train and advise Iraqi forces still waging a campaign against the militant group.

Islah is headed by populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr has long opposed the US presence in Iraq since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. He led two uprisings against US forces in Iraq and is one of the few Shi’ite leaders to also distance himself from Iran.

Iraq’s Shi’ite militias, also known as the PMF, many of which are supported by Iran, oppose the presence of US troops in the region. The PMF was made formally part of the security forces this year after helping the military defeat Islamic State in Iraq in 2017.

Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the powerful Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, said on Twitter, “Iraqis will respond with a parliamentary decision to oust your (US) military forces. And if they do not leave, we have the experience and the ability to remove them by other means that your forces are familiar with.”

Some Iraqis, however, were less concerned with the US president’s visit.

“We won’t get anything from America,” said Baghdad resident Mohammad Abdullah. “They’ve been in Iraq 16 years, and they haven’t given anything to the country except destruction and devastation.”

Mr Trump has drawn fire from some in the US military for not having visited US troops in conflict zones since taking office in January 2017, particularly after he cancelled a trip to a World War I cemetery in France last month due to rain.

The President was looking for some positive headlines after days of turmoil over his decisions to withdraw all US troops from Syria, pull out half of the 14,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan, and push out Defence Secretary James Mattis two months earlier than planned for criticising his policies.

Many Republican and Democratic lawmakers have heaped scorn on Trump for his sudden order last week to withdraw from Syria.

“We want peace and the best way to have peace is through strength,” Trump told troops wearing camouflage fatigues in a hangar as he concluded his visit.

He said some troops “can now return home to their families.”

“Our presence in Syria was not open ended and it was never intended to be permanent,” he added.

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