Iraq Wants Both the U.S. and Iran's Forces Out of the Country

Iraq has called for all international forces to withdraw from its soil amid a dramatic and deadly series of events that have transpired over the past two weeks, threatening to drag the country into a wider conflict between the United States and Iran.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali al-Hakim said Thursday at a press conference alongside his Turkish counterpart that "it was very necessary that all foreign troops need to leave from our territory," something he said "could take place through diplomacy and dialogue based on the respect for sovereignty and mutual interests."

Hakim's remarks came two days after Iran launched missiles at Iraqi military positions housing U.S. and allied troops in response to last week's U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani and leading Iraqi militia officials in Baghdad. The Iraqi government has condemned both operations, which were conducted without its consent.

The Iraqi House of Representatives voted Sunday to facilitate the withdrawal of foreign forces and so far Germany and the U.S.-led NATO Western military alliance have announced partial pullbacks of their forces from Iraq. President Donald Trump, however, said that now "isn't the right point" for a U.S. exit and even threatened sanctions against Iraq if it tried to expel U.S. forces.

Speaking to Newsweek, a senior U.S. intelligence official said Thursday, there has been "no decision yet." The official added: "Wait and see."

iraq, turkey, foreign, ministers, baghdad
Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali al-Hakim (R) and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu hold a joint press conference in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on January 9. Iraq's top diplomat said he would not allow his country to become a battleground for foreign forces. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. military sparked international confusion Monday—a day after Iraqi lawmakers voted against the presence of foreign forces—by sending a letter to the Iraqi officials of their joint command stating that the Pentagon was preparing to move personnel "out of Iraq" in order to "respect your sovereign decision to order our departure." Newsweek confirmed the document's authenticity with two U.S. officials.

Shortly after the news broke, Defense Secretary Mark Esper dismissed the letter, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mark Milley told reporters it was a "draft" sent by "mistake."

On Tuesday, however, Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi told a cabinet meeting that he would treat the document as official. He told his officials that "it is not just a paper that fell out of the photocopier or something that came by accident" and demanded another correspondence clarifying the incident.

As for neighboring Iran, the Islamic Republic does not acknowledge having forces active in Iraq. The Revolutionary Guard, however, has long played a crucial role in organizing and supporting mostly Shiite Muslim militias that faced off with U.S. troops following the 2003 invasion that toppled longtime leader Saddam Hussein, and against Sunni Muslim insurgents such as the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

These groups, known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces, have grown increasingly hostile to the U.S. military presence since the defeat of ISIS. Washington and Tehran both supported anti-ISIS efforts in Iraq and Syria but their relations fell out after Trump walked away in 2018 from a multilateral nuclear deal and began imposing strict sanctions on the Iranian economy.

The U.S. has accused Iran-aligned elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces of conducting rocket attacks on Iraqi bases housing U.S. and allied military personnel, and the situation escalated significantly last month after one such attack killed a Pentagon contractor at the K-1 Air Base in northern Iraq. The U.S. responded with airstrikes that killed up to 27 people at Kataib Hezbollah militia sites along the Iraq-Syria border, resulting in violent pro-militia protests New Year's Eve at Washington's embassy in Baghdad.

These protests were mostly separate from the widespread, months-long demonstrations targeting foreign influence, especially from Iran, whose diplomatic buildings have been torched in sometimes violent confrontations suppressed by security forces and militias. The U.S., too, has been accused by frustrated Iraqis of imposing its own will on a nation suffering from decades of conflict.

The U.S. strike that assassinated Soleimani shortly after near Baghdad's International Airport also killed Popular Mobilization Forces deputy chairman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and other militia officials who were widely mourned throughout Iraq. Iran has used the opportunity to call for U.S. forces to leave the region as a whole and has warned of potential future action to further avenge its slain commander.

In a call with Abdul-Mahdi on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made no mention of Iraqi officials' calls for foreign forces to leave, instead reiterating "the United States' condemnation of the Iranian regime's January 7 launch of ballistic missiles into two sites in Iraq that host Iraqi, American, and Coalition forces working together to defeat ISIS," according to a State Department readout of his remarks.

"The Secretary underscored that, as President Trump has said, the United States will do whatever it takes to protect the American and Iraqi people and defend our collective interests," he said.