BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's caretaker prime minister asked Washington to work out a road map for an American troop withdrawal, but the U.S. State Department on Friday bluntly rejected the request, saying the two sides should instead talk about how to "recommit" to their partnership.
Thousands of anti-government protesters turned out in the capital and southern Iraq, many calling on both Iran and America to leave Iraq, reflecting their anger and frustration over the two rivals — both allies of Baghdad — trading blows on Iraqi soil.
The request from Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi pointed to his determination to push ahead with demands for U.S. troops to leave Iraq, stoked by the American drone strike on Jan. 3 that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. In a phone call Thursday night, he told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that recent U.S. actions were unacceptable breaches of Iraqi sovereignty and a violation of their security agreements, his office said.
He asked Pompeo to "send delegates to Iraq to prepare a mechanism" to carry out the Iraqi Parliament's resolution on withdrawing foreign troops, according to the statement.
"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 statement added.
Abdul-Mahdi signaled he was standing by the push for U.S. forces to leave despite signs of de-escalation by Tehran and Washington after Iran retaliated for Soleimani's death by firing missiles that hit two Iraqi bases where American troops are based but caused no casualties.
Iraqis feel furious and helpless at being caught in the middle of the fighting. Abdul-Mahdi has said he rejects all violations of Iraqi sovereignty, including both the Iranian and U.S. strikes.
The State Department flatly dismissed Abdul-Mahdi's request, saying U.S. troops are crucial for the fight against the Islamic State group and it would not discuss removing them.
Pompeo indicated Friday the troops would remain, adding that the U.S. would continue its mission to help train Iraqi security forces and counter the Islamic State group.
"We are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is," Pompeo said at the White House during an unrelated appearance.
"Our mission set there is very clear. We've been there to perform a training mission to help the Iraqi security forces be successful and to continue the campaign against ISIS, to continue the counter-Daesh campaign," he said, using alternate acronyms for the militant group.
"We're going to continue that mission but, as times change and we get to a place where we can deliver upon what I believe and what the president believes is our right structure with fewer resources dedicated to that mission, we will do so," Pompeo said.
He said a NATO team was at the State Department working on a plan "to get burden- sharing right in the region, as well, so that we can continue the important missions to protect and defend, and keep the American people safe" while reducing costs and burdens borne by the U.S.
Earlier in the day, Pompeo's spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to "discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership - not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East."