On February 3, President Donald Trump said that U.S. forces departing Syria would shift to bases in Iraq to “watch” Iran, in an interview with CBS news. Iraqi leaders were quick to condemn his remark. Deputy Speaker of Parliament Hassan Karim al Kaabi called the Trump’s comment a “blatant and overt violation of sovereignty and national will” and said that Parliament would draft legislation to terminate Iraq’s security agreement with the United States. “Do not burden Iraq with your own policy priorities,” said Iraqi President Barham Salih. The country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, said Iraq seeks “good and balanced relations” with all its neighbors and “rejects being a launching pad for harming any other country.” The following are excerpted remarks Trump and reactions from Iraqi leaders.
President Donald Trump
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I'm not telegraphing anything. No, no, no. There's a difference. When President Obama pulled out of Iraq in theory we had Iraq. In other words, we had Iraq. We never had Syria because President Obama never wanted to violate the red line in the sand. So we never had Syria. I was the one that actually violated the red line when I hit Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles, if you remember. But President Obama chose not to do that. When he chose not to do that, he showed tremendous weakness. But we didn't have Syria whereas we had Iraq. So when he did what he did in Iraq, which was a mistake. Being in Iraq was a mistake. Okay. Being in Iraq- it was a big mistake to go- one of the greatest mistakes going into the Middle East that our country has ever made. One of the greatest mistakes that we've ever made--
QUESTION: But you want to keep troops there now?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: --but when it was chosen-- well, we-- we spent a fortune on building this incredible base. We might as well keep it. And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem.
QUESTION: Whoa, that's news. You're keeping troops in Iraq because you want to be able to strike in Iran?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: No, because I want to be able to watch Iran. All I want to do is be able to watch. We have an unbelievable and expensive military base built in Iraq. It's perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East--
PRESIDENT TRUMP: --rather than pulling up. And this is what a lot of people don't understand. We're going to keep watching and we're going to keep seeing and if there's trouble, if somebody is looking to do nuclear weapons or other things, we're going to know it before they do.
—Feb. 3, 2019, in an interview with Margaret Brennan on CBS “Face the Nation”
Iraqi President Barham Salih
QUESTION: Mr. President it is an honor to be here as Iraq emerges from war and return to be a thought leader or instigator for change in the middle east in the sphere of independence, I want to start with comment with CBS news Mr. Trump has made, President Trump only yesterday said that he would keep US troops in Iraq to watch Iran, did he asked Iraq's permission to do his?
PRESIDENT SALIH: He did not ask us, he has not. I want to say American personnel in Iraq are operating based on agreement between Iraq and the US with a defined specific mission of combating terrorism, of Daesh, ISIS, and they do not have another definition beyond helping Iraqi forces in the fight against terrorism. Iraq's Constitution doesn't allow the use of our territory against any neighbor. I am sure the US has other means, technology and others, by which it can monitor Iran— it does not require Iraq and these elements to do that job.
There is an intense debate about whether American forces in Iraq should stay or leave. This will be solved through a legal and constitutional way and based on the assessment of our commander in chief, the Prime Minister, and our military commanders, to basically clarify the nature, the numbers, and the presence of these military personnel.
QUESTION: When Mr. Trump makes comments like this, does it fuel sentiment in Iraq to expel US forces? I know the parliament is considering a more to do just that and there was a confrontation between Hashd al Shaabi forces and the US forces in Mosul recently that has really inflamed much of the country.
PRESIDENT SALIH: I think the dynamics here are complex, and President Trump, who is the President of America, will be assessing the situation as he sees right for the the United States. It is also true for us to assess our own dynamics, our country has gone through much suffering and tragedy for 40 years going from war, through sanctions, terrorism, 40 years of unrelenting conflict and tragedy, day in day out. Please understand, when you have a terrorist incident in the US or a shooting at schools, the trauma you feel...then imagine Iraqis enduring these incidents and terrorism over 40 years. This country needs support and appreciation of its predicament by the international community. The success in Iraq that has been achieved against ISIS is real but it is not definite yet, it is not final yet. We still have elements of ISIS…there are a lot of ISIS who can pose threats, not just against Iraq but against the international community and against our friends. So let us not squander this precious yet precarious success. Do not over burden Iraq with your own issues, and your own priorities. Iraq needs the space, the support in order to deal with challenges. We do not want to be part of any axis against another. In this part of the world, Iraq wants to be the area where the nations come together and really work for new regional order based on economic integration, based on fundamental mission of creating jobs for our young people.
I'm living here, and Iraq lives in this tough, interesting neighborhood to say the least. The United States is a major power and it has its own priorities. We appreciate the support of the US in the war against terror, but one thing I can ask our friends to understand, we live here, our priority is really to reconstruct our country from decades of war and devastation. Do not burden Iraq with your own policy priorities…eradicating terrorism and reconstruction is our priority. Iraq is just coming out of conflict with ISIS. Iraq needs support and understanding. Our priority is developing good relations with neighbors. Iran is our neighbor, we have 1400km of borders with Iran. It is a fundamental interest of Iraq to have a good relations with Iran as it is also to have a very good relations with our neighbors in Arab world, with Saudi Arabia. I have just come back from an important visit to Turkey, where we had substantive conversations about the future of Syria.
The United States is an important power and we appreciate greatly the contribution of the US in the war against ISIS, but do not burden Iraq with issues that not represent a top priority for the country at the moment.
—Feb. 4, 2019, remarks at the Rafidain Center for Dialogue in Baghdad
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi
“There are no American military bases in Iraq. We have said that more than once. There is no SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) between the United States of America and Iraq as mentioned by some media outlets.”
“That [because U.S. forces are only in Iraq to train Iraqi security forces] is why, when it is said that the mission of these forces is to fight a neighboring country, like Iran for example, we reject that notion. The constitution itself prevents us from such approaches.”
“We don’t accept Iraq being the battlefield of a side waging a war against someone.”
“Whatever the parliament decides [about expelling U.S. forces from Iraq], we will apply [it], and we will go forward. But I don’t think there is an official request.”
“We tell all our friends, whether to our friends in Iran or the American side, that Iraq is a country that has friendly relations with everyone.”
—Feb. 5, 2019, in a press conference
Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani
“[Iraq aspires to have] good and balanced relations [with all of its neighbors] based on mutual interests and without intervention in internal affairs.”
“[Iraq] rejects being a launching pad for harming any other country.”
—Feb. 6, 2019, in an interview with U.N. Special Representative for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert
Deputy Speaker of Parliament Hassan Karim al Kaabi
President Trump committed a “blatant and overt violation of sovereignty and national will.”
In the next parliamentary session, lawmakers will pass a law terminating “the security agreement with America, in addition to ending the presence of American military trainers and advisors and foreigners on Iraqi soil.”
—Feb. 4, 2019, in a statement reported by Rudaw
Member of Parliament and former Prime Minister Haider al Abadi
Iraqi sovereignty must be respected. Its interests should not be compromised. Iraq should not be used as a spring board to attack its neighbours . We are not proxies in conflicts outside the interests of our nation.— Haider Al-Abadi (@HaiderAlAbadi) February 4, 2019
Member of Parliament Jawad al Musawi
“There is distrust of the American government — even if they say they are coming to protect us against Daesh (ISIS).”
“The real reason they will be coming is to hit Iran.”
—Feb. 3, 2019, in a comment reported by The New York Times