Iraqis de­mand US troop pull­out

Law­mak­ers: Trump visit ‘ar­ro­gant,’ vi­o­lated na­tion’s sovereignty

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Philip Issa

BAGHDAD » Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s sur­prise trip to Iraq may have qui­eted crit­i­cism at home that he had yet to visit troops in a com­bat zone, but it has in­fu­ri­ated Iraqi politi­cians who on Thurs­day de­manded the with­drawal of U. S. forces.

“Ar­ro­gant” and “a vi­o­la­tion of na­tional sovereignty” were but a few ex­am­ples of the dis­ap­proval em­a­nat­ing from Baghdad fol­low­ing Trump’s meet­ing Wed­nes­day with U.S. ser­vice­men and women at the al-Asad Air­base.

Trips by U.S. pres­i­dents to con­flict zones are typ­i­cally shrouded in se­crecy and sub­ject to strict se­cu­rity mea­sures, and Trump’s was no ex­cep­tion. Few in Iraq or else­where knew the U. S. pres­i­dent was in the coun­try un­til min­utes be­fore he left.

But this trip came as curb­ing for­eign in­flu­ence in Iraqi af­fairs has be­come a hot-but­ton po­lit­i­cal is­sue in Baghdad, and Trump’s per­ceived pres­i­den­tial faux pas was fail­ing to meet with the prime minister in a break with diplo­matic cus­tom for any vis­it­ing head of state.

On the ground for only about three hours, the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent told the men and women with the U. S. mil­i­tary that Is­lamic State forces have been

van­quished, and he de­fended his de­ci­sion against all ad­vice to with­draw U.S. troops from neigh­bor­ing Syria. He said the U. S. was once again re­spected as a na­tion, and de­clared: “We’re no longer the suck­ers, folks.”

The abrupt­ness of his visit left law­mak­ers in Baghdad smart­ing and draw­ing un­fa­vor­able com­par­isons to the oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq after the 2003 in­va­sion.

“Trump needs to know his lim­its. The Amer­i­can oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq is over,” said Sabah al- Saidi, the head of one of two main blocs in Iraq’s par­lia­ment.

Trump, he said, had slipped into Iraq, “as though Iraq is a state of the United States.”

While Trump didn’t meet with any of­fi­cials, he spoke with Prime Minister Adel Ab­dul-Mahdi by phone. A planned meet­ing be­tween the two lead­ers was can­celed over a “dif- fer­ence in points of view” over ar­range­ments, ac­cord­ing to the prime minister’s of­fice.

The visit could have un­in­tended con­se­quences for Amer­i­can pol­icy, with of­fi­cials from both sides of Iraq’s po­lit­i­cal di­vide call­ing for a vote in Par­lia­ment to ex­pel U. S. forces from the coun­try.

The pres­i­dent, who kept to the U. S. air base ap­prox­i­mately 60 miles west of Baghdad, said he had no plans to with­draw the 5,200 troops in the coun­try. He said al-Asad Air­base could be used for U. S. airstrikes in­side Syria.

The sug­ges­tion ran counter to the cur­rent sen­ti­ment of Iraqi pol­i­tics, which fa­vors claim­ing sovereignty over for­eign and do­mes­tic pol­icy and stay­ing above the fray in re­gional con­flicts.

“Iraq should not be a plat­form for the Amer­i­cans to set­tle their accounts with ei­ther the Rus­sians or the Ira­ni­ans in the re­gion,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a se­nior law­maker in al- Saidi’s Is­lah bloc in Par­lia­ment.

U. S. troops are sta­tioned in Iraq as part of the coali­tion against the Is­lamic State group. Amer­i­can forces with­drew in 2011 after in­vad­ing in 2003 but re­turned in 2014 at the in­vi­ta­tion of the Iraqi govern­ment to help fight the ji­hadist group. Trump’s visit was the first by a U. S. pres­i­dent since Barack Obama met with then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Ma­liki at a U. S. base out­side Baghdad in 2009.

After de­feat­ing IS mil­i­tants in their last ur­ban bas­tions last year, Iraqi politi­cians and mili­tia lead­ers are speak­ing out against the con­tin­ued pres­ence of U. S. forces on Iraqi soil.

Sup­port­ers of the pop­ulist cleric Mo­q­tada al- Sadr won big in na­tional elec­tions in May, cam­paign­ing on a plat­form to curb U. S. and ri­val Ira­nian in­volve­ment in Iraqi af­fairs. Al-Sadr’s law­mak­ers now form the core of the Is­lah bloc, which is headed by al-Saidi in Par­lia­ment.

The ri­val Bi­naa bloc, com­manded by politi­cians and mili­tia lead­ers close to Iran, also does not fa­vor the U. S.

Qais Khaz­ali, the head of the Iran- backed Asaib Ahl al- Haq mili­tia that fought key battles against IS in northern Iraq, promised on Twit­ter that Par­lia­ment would vote to ex­pel U.S. forces from Iraq, or the mili­tias would force them out by “other means.”

Khaz­ali was jailed by Bri­tish and U.S. forces from 2007 to 2010 for man­ag­ing sec­tions of the Shia in­sur­gency against the oc­cu­pa­tion dur­ing those years.

Trump’s visit would be a “great moral boost to the po­lit­i­cal par­ties, armed fac­tions, and oth­ers who op­pose the Amer­i­can pres­ence in Iraq,” Iraqi po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Ziad al-Arar said.

Still, the U. S. and Iraq de­vel­oped con­sid­er­able mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence ties in the war against IS, and they con­tinue to pay off in op­er­a­tions against mil­i­tants gone into hiding.

AN­DREW HARNIK — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump speaks to U.S. troops at al-Asad Air­base in Iraq on Wed­nes­day.

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