US general slips into Iraq for talks to salvage relations

ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT (AP) — The top United States (US) commander for the Middle East slipped quietly into Iraq on Tuesday, as the Trump administration works to salvage relations with Iraqi leaders and shut down the government’s push for an American troop withdrawal.

Marine General Frank McKenzie became the most senior US military official to visit since an American drone strike in Baghdad last month killed a top Iranian general, enraging the Iraqis.

McKenzie met with Iraq leaders in Baghdad and then went to see American troops at al-Asad Air base, which was bombed by Iran last month in retaliation for the drone attack. Later, he said he was “heartened” by the meetings, adding, “I think we’re going to be able to find a way forward”.

His visit comes amid heightened anti-American sentiment that has fuelled violent protests, rocket attacks on the embassy and a vote by the Iraqi Parliament pushing for withdrawal of US troops from the country.

And it raises questions about whether the appearance of a high-profile US military commander could spur compromise, or simply inflame tensions and scuttle ongoing negotiations to put Patriot missile batteries in Iraq to better protect coalition forces.

Two reporters travelling with McKenzie for the past two weeks around the Middle East did not go with him into Iraq because they didn’t have required visas.

Speaking to The Associated Press and Washington Post reporters after he returned, McKenzie said it’s difficult to predict how the discussions will turn out, particularly because the government is in transition.

While he met with outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, President Barham Saleh, and Speaker of the House Salim al-Jabouri, he did not see the Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi.

He said the US-led coalition in Iraq believes that future military presence in the country must be based on the threat from Islamic State (IS) militants, in consultation with the Iraqi government. He acknowledged that due to the current strain in relations, joint military operations and training between the US and the Iraqis have been scaled back. He said there is “some training” and that US special operations forces are doing missions with Iraqi commandos. But, he said, “We’re still in a period of turbulence. We’ve got a ways to go. “

Anti-government protesters during a demonstration against the newly appointed Prime Minister Mohammed Allawi in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq. PHOTO: AP