While President Donald Trump announced a hasty withdrawal of United States military forces from Afghanistan and Syria late last year, he wants to keep soldiers stationed in Iraq “to watch” Iran—a policy shift which has angered leading Iraqi politicians, while creating a giant question mark over the nature of U.S. involvement in the region.
“Iraqi sovereignty must be respected,” tweeted Iraq’s President Barham Salih on Monday. “We are not proxies outside the interests of our nation.”
“If the Americans try to bring more troops to Iraq, there will be an escalation in the opposition to them,” Jawad al-Musawi, a member of Iraq’s Parliament, told The New York Times.
Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, navigating Washington’s relationship with Baghdad has proved a delicate balancing act for diplomats and policymakers. But the Trump era has introduced new hurdles for an already strained geopolitical entanglement—given the president’s propensity for remarks seen as insensitive. After lamenting on the campaign trail that the U.S. should have seized Iraqi oil fields, Trump raised to former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi the possibility of compensating America with oil for its involvement.
“We have a working relationship with the Iraqi government, but it does keep getting pushed off balance by these comments from the president which are completely tone deaf and totally insensitive to Iraq concerns and paranoia about the United States having these ulterior motives in maintaining its military presence there,” Scott Anderson, a former legal advisor for the State Department and U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, told Observer.
Trump’s remarks on monitoring Iran by way of Baghdad also appear to violate the basis of U.S. involvement in the region. In 2014, the Iraqi government sent a letter to the United Nations requesting “the United States of America to lead international efforts to strike ISIL sites and military strongholds with our express consent.” Nowhere in the parameters of the agreement is Iran mentioned.
“The United States is in Iraq in response to Iraq’s 2014 request for assistance from the international community in combating ISIS and other terrorist groups,” explained Anderson. “Obviously Iraq has a relationship with Iran and is not going to be comfortable being a platform for military operations in the region.”