US general sees smaller but enduring troop presence in Iraq

The top US general for the Middle East is talking optimistically about keeping a smaller but enduring military presence in Iraq. (File/AFP)
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Updated 08 July 2020

US general sees smaller but enduring troop presence in Iraq

  • Tensions spiked between the US and Iraq in January after a US drone strike killed Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis
  • McKenzie said the US recognizes that Al-Kadhimi is in a difficult position as he tries to deal with all factions within the government

WASHINGTON: Six months after a deadly American airstrike in Baghdad enraged Iraqis and fueled demands to send all US troops home, the top US general for the Middle East is talking optimistically about keeping a smaller but enduring military presence there.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, met Tuesday with Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, and said afterward that he believes the Iraqis welcome the US and coalition troops, especially in the ongoing fight to keep Daesh militants from taking hold of the country again.
“I believe that going forward, they’re going to want us to be with them,” McKenzie told a small group of reporters, speaking by phone hours after he left Iraq. “I don’t sense there’s a mood right now for us to depart precipitously. And I’m pretty confident of that.”
Tensions spiked between the US and Iraq in January after a US drone strike near the Baghdad airport killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. Angry Iraqi lawmakers, spurred on by Shiite political factions, passed a nonbinding resolution to oust all US-led coalition forces from the country.
In response to the Soleimani killing, Iran on Jan. 8 launched a massive ballistic missile attack on Al-Asad air base in Iraq, which resulted in traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 American troops. Two months later, US fighter jets struck five sites in retaliation, targeting Iranian-backed Shiite militia members believed responsible for the January rocket attack.
President Donald Trump has vowed to bring troops home and halt what he calls America’s endless wars. But he has also warned Iran to expect a bold US response if Iranian-backed militias attack Americans in Iraq.
The US invaded Iraq in 2003, but troops left in 2011. American forces returned to Iraq in 2014, after Daesh began taking over large swaths of the country,
McKenzie last visited Iraq in early February, slipping into the country for a few hours to meet with leaders as anti-American sentiment was soaring and violent protests and rocket attacks were pummeling the American Embassy.
Relations, however, have improved since Al-Kadhimi took over in May. And while some groups, such as parliament’s Iran-backed Fatah bloc, continue to call for the withdrawal of US forces, there is an emerging dialog between the US and Iraq on the future relationship between the two nations.
McKenzie said the US recognizes that Al-Kadhimi is in a difficult position as he tries to deal with all factions within the government and maintain relations with both the US and Iran.
The US has criticized Iraq’s government for being unable to rein in the Iran-backed militia groups it believes are orchestrating the attacks. And Al-Kadhimi has pledged to protect American troops and installations from attacks.
“I think he’s negotiating a land mine now. I think we need to help him,” McKenzie said. “He’s in a very difficult position.”
McKenzie said he hopes the US-Iraq meeting slated for this month will be face-to-face but knows the coronavirus pandemic could affect that. The talks are expected to run the gamut of their bilateral relations, with Washington prioritizing future force levels in Iraq and the ongoing militia attacks, and Baghdad focusing more on its dire economic crisis.
“Certainly we need some foreign presence in Iraq,” McKenzie said. “I don’t know that it needs to be as big as it is now, because ultimately that’s going to be a political, not a military, decision. But I think the Iraqis know, welcome and value what we do for them now.”
There are between 5,000 and 6,000 US troops in Iraq.
McKenzie would not say how many US troops might stay. But he said Iraqi conventional forces now operate on their own. US and coalition forces continue to conduct training and counterterrorism operations, including with Iraqi commandos. Any final decisions, he said, would be coordinated with the Iraqi government.
He said that as Iraqi troops grow more competent, fewer coalition forces would be needed.


Yemen’s attorney general orders probe into Aden ammonium nitrate reports

Updated 9 min 13 sec ago

Yemen’s attorney general orders probe into Aden ammonium nitrate reports

  • On Friday, Yemeni lawmakers joined voices that demanded an immediate investigation into allegations of stranded containers of ammonium nitrate

AL-MUKALLA: Yemen’s attorney general on Friday ordered prosecutors in the southern port city of Aden to launch a quick probe into reports about tons of ammonium nitrate abandoned in the city’s seaport for several years.

In a letter addressed to Aden province’s chief appeal prosecutor, Ali Ahmed Al-Awash ordered an investigation to determine the veracity of media reports that 130 containers of ammonium nitrate, the same explosive materials that devastated Beirut last week, had been abandoned in the seaport for some time.

Yemeni journalist Fatehi Ben Lazerq, the editor of the Aden Al-Ghad news site and newspaper, published a story on Friday saying that roughly 4,900 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in 130 containers had been gathering dust at the port for the last three years.

The story prompted Yemen Gulf of Aden Ports Corporation, a government body that runs Aden seaport, to strongly deny storing ammonium nitrate at the site, saying the reporter was referring to old seized shipments of 140 containers of the organic compound urea, which, like ammonium nitrate, is used as an agricultural fertilizer.

The corporation claimed the material was not “explosive or radioactive”. Urea nitrate, however, has been used in making bombs across the world, including those detonated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.

Ben Lazerq later fleshed out the story by publishing a letter from Brig. Abdul Salam Al-Ameri, the chief of Aden Free Zone police, from April 12, 2012 and addressed to the Saudi-led coalition leadership, complaining that the confiscated containers were due to expire and might “cause great harm” to the seaport infrastructures and workers.

“The ball is in their court now,” Ben Lazerq told Arab News, referring to the government officials, saying that he published the story to alert the public about the hazardous materials.

On Friday, Yemeni lawmakers joined voices that demanded an immediate investigation into allegations of stranded containers of ammonium nitrate. Ali Hussein Ashal, a member of the Parliament of Yemen, sent a letter to the government requesting clarifications about the presence of 130 40-foot containers of fertilizer abandoned in Aden seaport, and the reasons for importing the materials.

Mohammed Alawi Amzrabeh, the chairman of Yemen Gulf of Aden Ports Corporation, told Arab News they kept the containers of “safe” agricultural fertilizers in the port after the Saudi-led coalition rejected the shipment’s entry into the country. Despite the corporation’s assurance that the materials in question do not pose a risk, several government officials told Arab News that the Saudi-led coalition and the internationally recognized government had classified urea fertilizer as an explosive material that could be used by the Iran-backed Houthis for military purposes, banning Yemeni seaports from importing it without prior permission.

In February, Arab News reported that the Yemeni coast guard seized a ship carrying 20 tons of urea fertilizer of the country’s west coast. State media outlets have also reported multiple confiscations of urea shipments on land in Yemen, destined for the Houthi-controlled territories in the north of the country.