Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday said U.S. military forces aren’t preparing to completely withdraw from Iraq but may trim down force numbers in coming months as officials reassess ongoing missions there.
The comments came in response to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s request that the United States send delegates to prepare for the full removal of U.S. military forces, following an Iraqi parliament vote last week to oust the foreign troops.
“The prime minister said American forces had entered Iraq and drones are flying in its airspace without permission from Iraqi authorities and this was a violation of the bilateral agreements,” the prime minister said in a statement obtained by the Associated Press.
But Pompeo, in a White House briefing Friday morning, characterized the diplomatic request differently, saying he viewed it as part of ongoing discussions about the role of U.S. troops in ongoing missions to counter Islamic State fighters.
“We are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is for our mission,” he said. “We've been there to perform a training mission to help the Iraqi security forces be successful, and to continue the campaign against ISIS … We're going to continue that mission.”
But Pompeo added that with recent successes against ISIS, the United States may be able to continue that work “with fewer resources.” He added that increases in NATO troops in the region could also lead to decreases in U.S. personnel there.
About 5,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed in Iraq assisting and providing training to Iraqi security counter-parts to fight the Islamic State group.
State Department officials said any delegation sent to Iraq in coming days “would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership — not to discuss troop withdrawal.” Defense Department officials have also stated publicly they are not preparing for a large-scale troop withdrawal from the country.
Discussions on U.S. force levels in Iraq have grown heated in recent days following President Donald Trump’s decision to order an air strike to kill Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani near the Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 3.
Iraqi officials were not given advance notice of the attack, and many political leaders there decried the action as a violation of Iraqi territory. In a non-binding vote, members of parliament ordered the Iraqi government to formally request a withdrawal.
On Friday, the White House issued a statement outlining new economic sanctions against Iran and defending the air strike as a necessary step to prevent future violence against America.
“The Iranian regime has threatened United States military service members, diplomats and civilians, as well as the citizens and interests of our allies and partners, through military force and proxy groups,” the statement said. “The United States will continue to counter the Iranian regime’s destructive and destabilizing behavior.”
Pompeo said Trump was reacting to “imminent” threats by Iran and Soleimani “against American facilities including American embassies and military bases” throughout the region.
“This was gonna happen, and American lives were at risk,” he said. “We would have been culpably negligent … had we not recommended to the president that he take this action. He made the right call. And America is safer as a result of that.”
Protests organized by various factions in the Iraqi parliament were scheduled throughout Friday to criticize the United States for its continued military presence there.
But the demand for withdrawal is not universal. Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers opposed the parliament resolution. The Sunnis see the U.S. presence as a bulwark against domination by the majority Shiites and Iran, while the Kurdish security forces had benefited from American training and aid.
Reporter Shawn Snow and the Associated Press contributed to this story.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.