BAGHDAD (AFP) – Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit yesterday for talks on the sensitive issue of a continued troop presence following withdrawal from neighbouring Syria.
Shanahan is keen to reassure Iraqi leaders after United States (US) President Donald Trump angered many by saying he wanted to keep troops at the Al-Asad airbase, northwest of Baghdad, to keep an eye on Iran.
The Acting Defence Secretary, who flew in from Afghanistan on his foreign tour since taking office last month, is due to hold talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi and top military advisors and commanders.
Trump’s comments about Iran, in an interview with CBS television aired on February 3, drew a stern rebuff from Iraq’s President Barham Saleh, who said the use of Iraq as a base against a third country violated its constitution.
They also sparked renewed calls for a US withdrawal both from pro-Iran factions within the government and from Iran-trained armed groups whose power has risen sharply during the fightback against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group that culminated in December 2017.
Those calls are likely to intensify as Washington carries out the full troop withdrawal from Syria unveiled in a shock announcement by Trump last December.
The plan, judged precipitate by both US allies and senior figures within Trump’s own administration, prompted the resignation of Shanahan’s predecessor, Jim Mattis.
But with US-backed Kurdish-led fighters poised to overrun IS’ last tiny enclave in eastern Syria, perhaps as early as this week, the withdrawal, which other administration figures had managed to slow, is now likely to gather pace.
Trump’s comments about the Al-Assad airbase came after the US President had already angered Iraqi leaders last December by paying a Christmas visit to US troops based there without travelling to Baghdad to talk with them.
“We spent a fortune on building this incredible base. We might as well keep it,” Trump said in the CBS interview.