Baghdad: America’s most senior Pentagon official flew into Baghdad on a surprise visit on Tuesday amid tension over the future of the US military presence in Iraq.
“We are in Iraq at the invitation of the government and our interests are to build Iraqi security capability,” acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said.
He held talks with Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi and top military advisers, as well as Lt. Gen. Paul LaCamera, the commander of anti-Daesh coalition forces.
“I want to hear firsthand from them about concerns, the political dynamics that they are facing, and then based on that we will obviously factor it into our planning,” Shanahan said.
The US has about 5,200 troops in Iraq to train and advise its security forces, 16 years after the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
President Donald Trump angered Iraqi politicians this month when he said the US had “spent a fortune” building Al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq, and US forces should remain there to keep an eye on Iran.
Iraqi officials said this was not the stated US mission in Iraq, it would violate the Iraqi constitution, and in any case the base belonged to Iraq.
US troops are in Iraq as part of an agreement with Baghdad with a specific mission to combat terrorism, and they should stick to that, Iraqi President Barham Salih said.
Iran-aligned politicians in Iraq’s Parliament used the furor to repeat their demand that the US mission in Iraq be restricted and troop numbers reduced.
Shanahan is a temporary replacement for James Mattis, who resigned as defense secretary in part over Trump’s decision to withdraw all 2,000 US troops from Syria.
Asked whether US troops in Syria could be moved to Iraq, Shanahan said he would be having conversations on these topics during his visit.
Curbing foreign influence has become a major issue in Iraq after parliamentary elections last year in which politicians backed by Iran made significant gains.
A draft law that would set a timetable for a US troop withdrawal is now before the Iraqi Parliament.
That political tension formed the backdrop to Shanahan’s visit, his first time in Iraq.
He flew to Baghdad from Afghanistan, where he met US troops and President Ashraf Ghani amid a US push for peace talks with the Taliban.
Trump has said he wants to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan after 18 years of war, but Shanahan said he has no orders for a troop reduction.