Washington, Jan 8 (IANS) US President Donald Trump said that there are no plans at this time to withdraw American troops from Iraq.
“At some point we want to get out, but this isn’t the right point,” Trump said at the White House, where he was meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “It’s the worst thing that could happen to Iraq,” he said in remarks to reporters on Tuesday, four days after a US airstrike killed a prominent Iranian military commander in Baghdad and further ratcheted up tensions in the Middle East, Efe news reported.
Trump went on to say that such a move would give Iran even greater influence in the region and that the Iraqi people do not want that.
He made his remarks after Iraq’s Parliament on Sunday responded to Friday’s assassination near Baghdad’s airport of the leader of the foreign wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qasem Soleimani, and the deputy leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces militia organization, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, by passing a non-binding resolution calling on the government to “end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil.”
Before his comments on Tuesday, Trump had said the US would not leave Iraq and abandon a multi-billion-dollar airbase it built there following the 2003 invasion unless that Arab nation reimburses Washington for its cost.
Confusion has surrounded the permanence of US troops in Iraq after a commander of the US-led military coalition against the Islamic State terror organization said soldiers in that Arab country would be repositioned.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, however, said Tuesday in an interview with CNN that American troops will remain in Iraq, adding that a draft letter sent by mistake the day before to Iraq’s Defence Ministry by the head of Combined Joint Task Force Iraq, Gen. William H Seeley III, “has no import.”
In that interview, Esper said the US is not seeking war with Iran but is prepared to act decisively if one breaks out.
“We are not looking to start a war with Iran, but we are prepared to finish one,” Esper said.
The Pentagon chief defended Friday’s drone strike that killed Soleimani, al-Muhandis and eight other people in their convoy, saying it was carried out based on US intelligence indicating that the Iranian general was planning further attacks on American personnel and interests.
“One terrorist leader of a terrorist organization meeting with another terrorist leader to synchronize and plan additional attacks on American diplomats, forces or facilities. I think we took the right action to remove these players from the battlefield,” Esper said.
However, the defence secretary also held out an olive branch to Iran on Tuesday, saying in a press conference at the Pentagon that the US is open to talks without preconditions to lower tensions.
In response to Iran’s vow to strike back against the US following Soleimani’s assassination, Trump warned over the weekend that Iranian cultural heritage sites will be targeted if Tehran retaliates.
That threat has sparked controversy, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeting that such an action would constitute a war crime.
The Pentagon, however, has ruled out attacks on cultural sites and Esper told CNN that the US would “follow the laws of armed conflict” in the event of an all-out confrontation with Iran.
Trump also walked back his threat on Tuesday, indicating that he would adhere to international law.
“If that’s what the law is – I like to obey the law. But think of it, they kill our people, they blow up our people, but then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions,” the president said.
The US has insisted since the assassination of Soleimani that the action was necessary because of that general’s alleged plans to target American interests and personnel.
Trump said that on Wednesday a group of eight US lawmakers who traditionally are given privileged access to classified intelligence will be briefed by the White House about the purported orchestration of attacks by Soleimani.