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.


Trump wrote to Assad about journalist missing in Syria, says Pompeo

In this file photo taken on December 04, 2018, Marc and Debra Tice, the parents of US journalist Austin Tice (portrait L), who was abducted in Syria more than six years ago, speak at a press conference in Beirut. (AFP)
Updated 15 August 2020

Trump wrote to Assad about journalist missing in Syria, says Pompeo

  • In 2018, US authorities announced a $1 million reward for information that would lead to his recovery

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump personally wrote to his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad about the case of journalist Austin Tice, who has been missing since 2012, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday.
“The US government has repeatedly attempted to engage Syrian officials to seek Austin’s release,” Pompeo said in a statement on the eighth anniversary of Tice’s disappearance.
“President Trump wrote to Bashar Assad in March to propose direct dialogue.”
Tice was a freelance photojournalist working for Agence France-Presse, McClatchy News, The Washington Post, CBS and other news organizations when he disappeared after being detained at a checkpoint near Damascus on Aug. 14, 2012.
Thirty-one years old at the time he was captured, Tice appeared blindfolded in the custody of an unidentified group of armed men in a video a month later.
Since then, there has been no official information on whether he is alive or dead.
In March, Trump said the United States had written a letter to authorities in Damascus, without specifying that he himself had written personally to Assad, who Washington wants out of power. At that time, Trump said he did not know if Tice was still alive.

HIGHLIGHT

Tice was a freelance photojournalist working for Agence France-Presse, McClatchy News, The Washington Post, CBS and other news organizations when he disappeared after being detained at a checkpoint near Damascus on Aug. 14, 2012.

“No one should doubt the president’s commitment to bringing home all US citizens held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas,” Pompeo said Friday.
“Nowhere is that determination stronger than in Austin Tice’s case.”
Pompeo said he and Trump hoped there would be “no need for another statement like this a year from now.”
“Austin Tice’s release and return home are long, long overdue. We will do our utmost to achieve that goal,” he added.
A year ago, the US government said it believed Tice was still alive.
His mother Debra Tice said in January that she had “credible information” to that effect, without elaborating.
In 2018, US authorities announced a $1 million reward for information that would lead to his recovery.