US President Donald Trump plans to keep United States troops in Iraq to monitor and maintain pressure on neighboring Iran, committing to an American military presence in the region’s war zones even as he moves to withdraw forces from Syria and Afghanistan, New York Times reported.
“I want to be able to watch Iran,” 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 quietly 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.
But senior American officers and diplomats said Trump’s comments could undercut the delicate negotiations in Iraq by inflaming fears among the Iraqis that the moves would be a guise to check Iran, potentially straining ties with Baghdad and weakening the ability of the United States to respond to ISIS remnants in Syria.
If the Americans try to bring more troops to Iraq, said Jawad al-Mousawi, a member of Parliament, “there will be an escalation in the opposition to them.”
“There is distrust of the American government — even if they say they are coming to protect us against Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic word for ISIS, “the real reason they will be coming is to hit Iran.”
To maintain a military mission in Syria despite Trump’s order to withdraw troops from the country, a plan has gained momentum within the Pentagon to use small teams of Special Operations forces to strike ISIS, as well as to continue airstrikes and resupplying allied Kurdish fighters.
Senior American officers recently visited several Iraqi bases, including Erbil and Al Asad Air Base as well as smaller ones closer to the Syrian border, to determine if existing American operations there could be expanded with troops shifting in from Syria, two United States officials said. Another American officer visited at least one Iraqi base near the Iranian border, a Kurdish politician said.
Col. Sean Ryan, a spokesman for the American-led coalition in Baghdad, said in an email that he had no information about the base visits.
A meeting in late January of the National Security Council’s “deputies committee” — the No. 2 leaders of national security departments and agencies — 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 two senior American officials.
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 strike teams are among the options in a new, evolving strategy for Syria that the Pentagon is developing as officials follow the order Trump gave in December to withdraw some 2,000 troops. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned soon after that, largely because of Trump’s decision to overrule his senior advisers and withdraw the troops.
The Pentagon says it is in the process of complying with 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.