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Trump calls to keep troops in Iraq to watch Iran, possibly upending ISIS fight

President Trump at a rally at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq in December. The base may take in additional American troops as they shift in from Syria. Credit: NY Times/Al Drago
United States President Donald Trump has announced plans to keep US troops in Iraq to monitor and maintain pressure on Iran and its activities in the country.

“I want to be able to watch Iran,” Mr. Trump said in an interview aired Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We’re going to keep watching and we’re going to keep seeing and if there’s trouble, if somebody is looking to do nuclear weapons or other things, we’re going to know it before they do.”

Trump’s comments come as the United States has been negotiating with Iraq for weeks to allow perhaps hundreds of American commandos and support troops now operating in Syria to shift to bases in Iraq and strike ISIS from there.

Military leaders are seeking to maintain pressure on the militant group as the president fundamentally reorders policy toward Syria and toward Afghanistan, where peace talks with the Taliban are underway.

To maintain a military mission in Syria despite Trump’s order to withdraw, a plan has gained momentum within the Pentagon to use small teams of Special Operations forces to strike ISIS and provide support to Kurdish fighters.

A meeting in late January of the National Security Council recommended allowing the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters, to keep the equipment the Pentagon has provided them and for an American-led air campaign to continue airstrikes to defend them against ISIS, according to the New York Times.

Any new basing arrangements would require Iraqi approval. The overall assistance proposal endorsed by the deputies committee still requires cabinet-level approval. But during his visit to Iraq in late December, Trump signaled his support for basing more commandos in Iraq to “prevent an ISIS resurgence.”

The Pentagon says it is in the process of complying with Mr. Trump’s withdrawal order, after commanders persuaded him to reverse his initial demand to pull out in 30 days in favor of a schedule of about four months. “We are on a deliberate, coordinated, disciplined withdrawal,” Patrick M. Shanahan, the acting defense secretary, told reporters last week.

The American military has started withdrawing some equipment, but not yet troops, officials said on Sunday. The number of American troops in Syria has actually increased in recent weeks to more than 3,000.

Trump’s comments in the CBS interview echoed his administration’s previous claims that Iran is cheating on the spirit of the 2015 nuclear agreement from which the United States has withdrawn.

He also added that the United States has “an unbelievable and expensive military base built in Iraq” that is “perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East.”

In fact, American forces operate from several Iraqi bases across the country, with most of the roughly 5,200 troops based at Al Asad or in Erbil in northern Iraq.

Late last year, just before his visit to the country, Mr. Trump declared victory over the Islamic State — a conclusion American intelligence agencies have since contradicted as premature.

“We have won against ISIS,” he said in a video posted on Twitter on Dec. 19, catching many off guard. “Our boys, our young women, our men — they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”

Since then the American-led coalition has significantly escalated its bombing campaign against the last remnants of the group. Pentagon officials say they want to inflict as much damage as possible before the drawdown starts. The coalition carried out about 1,200 strikes in Syria in January, compared with 952 in December and 639 in November, according to military statistics.

The last die-hard fighters are hunkered down in two villages, or about 1.5 square miles of territory, along the Euphrates River near Syria’s border with Iraq.

Trump’s spy chiefs warned him last week in public testimony that ISIS will remain extremely dangerous.

“While ISIS is nearing territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria, the group has returned to its guerrilla warfare roots while continuing to plot attacks and direct its supporters worldwide,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee.