Iraqi president hits back at Trump over US army presence

FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2018, file photo, U.S. Army soldiers speak to families in rural Anbar on a reconnaissance patrol near a coalition outpost in western Iraq. Iraq’s president has slammed comments by U.S. President Donald Trump who he says he wants to keep U.S. troops in Iraq “to watch Iran.” Barham Salih said Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 that Trump did not ask Iraq’s permission for American troops stationed there to watch Iran, describing his comments as “strange.”(AP Photo/Susannah George, File)

Iraq's president has slammed comments by President Donald Trump in which he says he wants to keep U.S. troops in Iraq 'to watch Iran'

BAGHDAD — Iraq's president hit back at Donald Trump Monday for saying U.S. troops should stay in Iraq to keep an eye on neighboring Iran, saying the U.S. leader did not ask for Iraq's permission to do so.

"We find these comments strange," said Barham Salih, speaking at a forum in Baghdad.

Trump's comments added to concerns in Iraq about America's long-term intentions, particularly after it withdraws its troops from Syria. Trump has angered Iraqi politicians and Iranian-backed factions by arguing he would keep U.S. troops in Iraq and use it as a base to strike Islamic State group targets inside Syria as needed.

In an interview with CBS News' "Face the Nation," he said U.S. troops in Iraq were also needed to monitor Iran.

"He didn't ask Iraq about this," Salih said Monday. He said U.S. troops were in Iraq as part of an agreement between the two countries with a specific mission of assisting in the fight against the Islamic State group and combatting "terrorism." He said the Iraqi constitution forbids the use of Iraq as a base to threaten the interests or security of neighboring countries.

"Don't overburden Iraq with your own issues," he added.

In the CBS interview, Trump said the U.S. has an "incredible base" in Iraq that he intends to keep, "because I want to be able to watch Iran."

"We spent a fortune on building this incredible base," Trump said. "We might as well keep it. And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem."

He said the U.S. base in Iraq is "perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East."

He appeared to be referring to the Al-Asad air base in western Iraq, where he paid a brief visit to U.S. forces in December. The base hosts American troops but belongs to the Iraqi army.

Trump's comments appear to have further inflamed tensions in Iraq over the continued presence of U.S. troops after the defeat of the Islamic State group. Curbing foreign influence has become a hot-button issue in Iraq after parliament elections in May in which Shiite militias backed by Iran made significant gains. The militias fought alongside U.S.-backed Iraqi troops against IS in recent years, gaining outsized influence and power along the way.

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

Trump has said he has no plans to withdraw the 5,200 troops in Iraq, which he says could carry out U.S. airstrikes inside Syria after American troops withdraw from that country.

American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the government to help battle IS after it seized vast areas in the north and west of the country, including Iraq's second largest city, Mosul. A U.S.-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces regrouped and drove IS out in a costly three-year campaign.

Earlier this month, the leader of one of Iraq's most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias told The Associated Press in an interview that he expects a vote in the coming months by Iraq's parliament calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Qais al-Khazali, head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, also suggested U.S. troops may eventually be driven out by force if they do not yield to the will of the Iraqi people.

Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also weighed in on Monday, saying Iraqi sovereignty must be respected and its interests should not be compromised.

"Iraq should not be used as a spring board to attack its neighbors. We are not proxies in conflicts outside the interests of our nation," he wrote in a Twitter post.

Separately, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, said Monday that the safe and voluntary return of hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis is key to ensuring that the country can leave its violent past behind.

Maurer spoke at a press conference in Baghdad at the end of a four-day visit to the country, which included the northern cities of Mosul and Irbil. Maurer highlighted the extraordinary challenges that communities across the country continue to face, including the fact that 1.8 million people remain displaced within Iraq more than a year after major combat operations ended, with nearly one in three still living in camps.

"The returns process cannot be rushed," he said. "People need adequate housing and basic services, including drinking water and health care, as well as livelihood opportunities, security and the clearance of unexploded ordnance."

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