In this Sept. 14, 2019 file photo, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Pat White, III Armored Corps Commanding General, second left, and Commanding General for U.S. Central Command Gen. (Photo: AP)
Iraq’s Parliament called for the expulsion of U.S. forces from the country in reaction to the American drone attack that killed a top Iranian general, raising the prospect of a troop withdrawal that could cripple the battle against the Islamic State group and allow a resurgence of the extremists.
Lawmakers approved a resolution asking the Iraqi government to end the agreement under which Washington sent troops more than four years ago to help fight ISIS. The bill is nonbinding and subject to approval by the Iraqi government but has the backing of the outgoing prime minister.
But the vote was another sign of the blowback from the U.S. airstrike Friday that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and a number of top Iraqi officials at the Baghdad airport. Soleimani was the architect of Iran’s proxy wars across the Mideast and was blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in roadside bombings and other attacks.
Speaking to lawmakers in Parliament, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said that after the killing of Soleimani, the government has two choices: End the presence of foreign troops in Iraq or restrict their mission to training Iraqi forces.
“As a prime minister and supreme commander of the armed forces, I call for adopting the first choice,” Abdul-Mahdi said.
Abdul-Mahdi resigned last year in response to the anti-government protests that have engulfed Baghdad and the mostly Shiite southern provinces. Political factions have been unable to agree on a new prime minister, and Abdul-Mahdi continues in a caretaker capacity.
Asked shortly before the parliamentary vote whether the U.S. would comply with an Iraqi government request for American troops to leave, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would not answer directly.
“We’ll watch. We’re following very closely what’s taking place in the Iraqi Parliament,” he told CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “It is the United States that is prepared to help the Iraqi people get what it is they deserve and continue our mission there to take down terrorism from ISIS and others in the region.”
A pullout of the estimated 5,200 U.S. troops could not allow ISIS to make a comeback but could also enable Iran to deepen its influence in Iraq.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Fox News that the parliamentary vote is “a bit concerning.”
“The Iranian government is trying to basically take over Iraq’s political system. Iran is bribing Iraqi politicians. To the Iraqi people, do not allow your politicians to turn Iraq into a proxy of Iran,” he said.
The attack that killed Soleimani has dramatically escalated regional tensions and raised fears of outright war.
Amid Iran’s threats of vengeance, the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq announced Sunday it is putting the fight against Islamic State militants on hold to focus on protecting its troops and bases. The coalition said it is suspending the training of Iraqi forces and other operations in support of the battle against ISIS.
Also, the leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group vowed to end the U.S. military’s presence in the Middle East, saying U.S. bases, warships and soldiers are now fair targets.
“The suicide attackers who forced the Americans to leave from our region in the past are still here and their numbers have increased,” Nasrallah said. It was not clear which suicide bombings Nasrallah was referring to. But a 1983 attack on a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killed 241 U.S. servicemen and led President Ronald Reagan to withdraw all American forces from the country.
Nasrallah spoke from an undisclosed location, and his speech was played on large screens for thousands of Shiite followers in southern Beirut, interrupted occasionally by chants of “Death to America!” The comments were Nasrallah’s first since Soleimani’s killing.
The majority of about 180 legislators present in Parliament voted in favor of the troop-removal resolution. It was backed by most Shiite members of parliament, who hold a majority of seats. Many Sunni and Kurdish legislators did not show up for the session, apparently because they oppose abolishing the deal.
“The government should work on ending the presence of all foreign forces,” Parliament Speaker Mohamed a-Halbousi said after the vote.
Iraqi officials have decried the killing of the general a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Abdul-Mahdi called it a “political assassination.”
Killing Iran’s most powerful general marked a turning point in U.S. Mideast policy by elevating a conflict that had previously been more of a shadow war, and by putting in doubt the Pentagon’s ability to keep troops in Iraq.
More broadly, the killing appears to have lessened chances that President Donald Trump will achieve the central goal of his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran: to compel its leaders to negotiate a new, broader nuclear deal.
The administration also faces troubling questions about the legality of the Soleimani killing, its failure to consult Congress in advance, and the prospect of plunging America into a new Mideast war.