Acting Pentagon chief makes surprise Baghdad visit

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Patrick Shanahan

By Sylvie Lanteaume

BAGHDAD —

Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan made an unannounced visit to the Iraqi capital on Tuesday for talks on the sensitive issue of a continued US troop presence after Washington withdraws from neighboring Syria.

Shanahan is keen to reassure Iraqi leaders after President Donald Trump angered many by saying he wanted to maintain some troops at the Al-Asad airbase, northwest of Baghdad, to keep an eye on Iran.

The acting defense secretary, who flew in from Afghanistan on his foreign tour since taking office last month, was due to hold talks with Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi and top military advisers, as well as Lt. Gen. Paul LaCamera, the commander of anti-Daesh coalition forces. “Our main partnership and military activity in Iraq is the de-IS (Daesh) mission,” a senior Pentagon official told journalists traveling with Shanahan, keeping the focus on the fight against Daesh (the so-called IS) militants.

Washington was also pressing its allies to repatriate their nationals captured and taken prisoner after fighting fought for Daesh in Iraq and Syria, the official said.

“We think coalition members need to take responsibility for their citizens who are fighters. It’s been a message we’ve delivered time and time again.

“And we are seeing hopeful progress,” he said.

Trump’s comments about Iran, in an interview with CBS television aired on Feb. 3, drew a stern rebuff from 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 Daesh 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 in December.

The plan, judged hasty 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 Daesh’s 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.

‘Incredible base’

Trump’s comments about the Al-Asad airbase came after the US president had already angered Iraqi leaders in December by paying a Christmas visit to US troops based there without traveling 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.

“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,” he added.

A draft law that would set a timetable for a US troop withdrawal is now before the Iraqi parliament. — AFP


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