Iraq has asked the United States to begin the process of planning the withdrawal of its troops from the country, five days after the Iraqi Parliament voted to end the longstanding American military presence there in the wake of the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said in a statement Friday that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call “to send a delegation to Iraq to put a mechanism [in place] for implementing the Iraqi parliament decision to safely withdraw troops from Iraq.”
This was, he said, because “Iraq is keen to keep the best relations with its neighbors and friends within the international community, and to protect foreign representations and interests and all those present on Iraqi soil.”
U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment on the move.
The prime minister also said the U.S. has been moving troops into the country and operating drones without authorization and contrary to an agreement between the two countries.
The U.S. announced it was sending 3,000 more troops to the Middle East last week after thousands of people, some aligned to Iranian-backed militias, protested at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and gained access to a reception area.
The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq — a fact of life in the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion — has become the source of debate and controversy in recent days.
A leaked letter from the commanding general of U.S. and allied troops in Iraq told the country’s Ministry of Defense it would be “re-positioning forces over the course of coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement.”
However, Pentagon chiefs have been quick to stress that there were in fact no plans to leave Iraq. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, has also denied the United States was leaving, describing the memo as “a mistake” and an unsigned draft.
The removal of the 6,000 or so American troops in Iraq would affect Operation Inherent Resolve, the multinational coalition dedicated to fighting the Islamic State militant group. That coalition stood down from its campaign against the terrorist group after Soleimani’s killing to concentrate on defending U.S. bases.
Politicians in the region and terrorism experts have warned that the American decision to step back from the fight against ISIS could provide a boost to extremists and an opportunity for Russia to increase its influence in Iraq.