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Acting Pentagon chief in Baghdad amid calls for US troop withdrawal

There are increasing calls in Iraq for US soldiers to leave their country [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 February, 2019

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Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit on Tuesday for talks on the sensitive issue of a continued troop presence following withdrawal from neighbouring Syria.

Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit on Tuesday for talks on the sensitive issue of a continued troop presence following withdrawal from neighbouring Syria.

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

The acting defence secretary, who flew in from Afghanistan on his foreign tour since taking office last month, is due to hold talks with Prime Ministrer Adel Abdul-Mahdi and top military advisers and commanders.

Trump's comments about Iran, in an interview with CBS television aired on February 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 the Islamic State 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 precipitate 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 the Islamic State group'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.

"The US acting defense secretary will meet with the Iraqi prime minister and discuss the issue of US presence and other issues, including protecting the border with Syria in coordination with US forces," a high-level Iraqi official told The New Arab's Arabic service, asking not to be named.

"The visit will likely produce new agreements with the Iraqi government to resolve the political controversy surrounding calls to remove US forces from Iraq," the source added, saying Shanahan is also scheduled to visit US troops in the country. 

Credible sources have told The New Arab there are currently around 5,000 US military personnel in Iraq

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

It is backed by both of Iraq's most powerful political groupings, the nationalist alliance led by popular Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the pro-Iran movement of former anti-IS fighters.

At a rare joint news conference on Monday, the two groupings demanded at the very least a "new agreement" setting tight conditions on any future foreign troop presence.

Following the US-led invasion that overthrew since-executed dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, US troop numbers peaked at some 170,000 before a full withdrawal was completed in 2011.

Credible sources have told The New Arab there are currently around 5,000 US military personnel in Iraq. They returned to Iraq in 2014 as part of an international coalition set up to fight IS after it swept through much of the north and west as well as swathes of neighbouring Syria that year.

Ayn al-Asad: The 'incredible US base' in Iraq

Trump's comments about the Ayn 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 travelling 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.

Below is a map showing the location of the base in Iraq



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