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Iraq's president to Trump: don't overburden us with your Iran issues

Key Points
  • Iraqi President Barham Salih rebuffed President Donald Trump's insistence on Sunday that the U.S. would maintain a military presence in Iraq to "watch Iran," telling the American leader not to burden Iraqis with his own political priorities.
  • "Don't overburden Iraq with your own issues," Salih said during an international forum in Baghdad, adding that he did not give Trump permission to use his country as a base to "watch Iran."
Iraqi President Barham Salih
Presidency of Iraq | Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty

Iraqi President Barham Salih rebuffed President Donald Trump's insistence on Sunday that the U.S. would maintain a military presence in Iraq to "watch Iran," telling the American leader not to burden Iraqis with his own political drama.

"Don't overburden Iraq with your own issues... We are not part of the U.S. battle with Iran," Salih said during an international forum in Baghdad, adding that he did not give Trump permission to use his country as a base to "watch Iran."

Trump expressed his intentions for continued a U.S. presence in the war-weary country during an interview with CBS aired Sunday, saying Iraq was "perfectly situated" to keep an eye on Iran and other countries in the region. The president had previously called for drawing down troop numbers in the country after having campaigned on ending years of U.S. warfare in the Middle East.

Iraq has long been characterized as a playing field for competing powers, with Iran enjoying significant influence in the majority-Shia country since the American invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003. The U.S., as well as its Gulf allies, view Iran's fortified presence in Iraqi politics as a direct threat to their interests and to regional stability.

"We spent a fortune on building this incredible base, we might as well keep it," Trump told CBS, alluding to the Ayn al-Asad Airbase in western Iraq. "And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran."

He denied wanting to attack the Islamic Republic, however, saying, "All I want to do is be able to watch."

"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," he said.

President Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops in an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

The remarks drew opprobrium from Iraqi officials, revealing what appeared to be a distinct divergence from Washington's long-stated mission of remaining in Iraq to support local forces in counterterrorism efforts.

Salih told media at the forum that the agreement between Baghdad and the Pentagon was focused on counterterrorism, and that any actions pursued beyond that would be "unacceptable."

He also stressed the importance of maintaining harmony with Tehran, with whom Iraq has $12 billion worth of bilateral trade each year. "It is of fundamental interest for Iraq to have good relations with Iran," he said.

Iran's geographical, cultural and religious ties to Iraq — particularly much of its Shia population — as well as its role in the anti-ISIS fight, make it a heavyweight in the country.

American military officials have been in negotiations with the Iraqi government over plans to potentially expand their presence there to retain proximity to Syria following Trump's order in December to withdraw all troops from the country.

Some fear that Trump's remarks could derail those plans and erase any potential goodwill from Iraqi officials, some of whom have called his intentions a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

Iraq's deputy speaker of parliament, Hassan Karim al-Kaabi, labeled the U.S. leader's comments a "blatant and overt violation of sovereignty and national will," according to Kurdish-Iraqi news website Rudaw.

More than a year on from declaring victory against the Islamic State, Iraq is often described as being at a crossroads, caught between competing forces — the U.S. and Iran — that it neither wants to alienate nor allow to run its domestic affairs.

"The U.S. is a major power," Salih said. "But do not pursue your own policy priorities, we live here."