President Donald Trump’s suggestion that the US would use a base in Iraq as a means to “watch” Iran evoked the scorn of Iraqi lawmakers on Monday and seemed to cause confusion among Pentagon officials and analysts, while the State Department told CNN that the US mission in Iraq remains unchanged.
“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,” Trump told CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday, adding that he wouldn’t use the US military outpost to strike Iran, but to “watch” it.
“All I want to do is be able to watch. We have an unbelievable and expensive military base built in Iraq. It’s perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East rather than pulling up,” he said. “And this is what a lot of people don’t understand. 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 were strongly rejected by current and former Iraqi political leaders.
Iraqi President Bahram Salih said that the US had not asked permission to have forces on the ground “watch Iran,” noting that “the US presence in Iraq is a part of an agreement between the two countries with a specific task which is to combat terrorism.”
“Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues,” Salih said during a forum in Baghdad.
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi tweeted in English on Monday that “Iraqi sovereignty must be respected.”
“Its interests should not be compromised. Iraq should not be used as a spring board to attack its neighbours. We are not proxies in conflicts outside the interests of our nation,” he wrote.
Multiple defense officials tell CNN that the President’s remarks on monitoring Iran from Iraq were unclear to Pentagon officials who were unsure if they indicated the US mission in Iraq is changing.
General Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday that he had not been given “additional tasks” on the US mission in Iraq.
A senior State Department official told reporters on Monday that the US mission in Iraq has not changed.
“Our troops are there in a relationship with the government of (Iraq) – by invitation of the government of Iraq, articulated by the strategic framework agreement. They’re there for the enduring defeat of ISIS, that hasn’t changed,” the official said, noting that the agreement is “based in respect for mutual sovereignty.”
However, the official said that “ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS requires focus on Iraqi stability and regional stability.”
“We can’t turn a blind eye toward the malign activities of Iran throughout the region. We expect Iran to fully respect the sovereignty of Iran and other regional states” they said.
An additional State Department official said in a statement to CNN that “the investments we have made in Iraq reflects our commitment to developing the Iraqi Security Forces’ capabilities and ensuring that Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity is protected.”
Retired Lt. General Mark Hertling, a CNN military analyst who commanded troops in Iraq, said he was unclear on what the President was talking about.
“I’m not sure you can watch Iran from inside Iraq,” he said on CNN’s “At This Hour.”
“The United States military is in Iraq to provide support for their government in their fight against ISIS, not to be looking at other states in the region.”
“And also, there doesn’t seem to be right now the equipment there to give us the ability to conduct strategic-level intelligence gathering,” Hertling added.
Former Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said Trump’s statement was “probably the worst way to get the Iraqis to actually support us keeping some kind of presence in Iraq.”
“The last thing that Iraqis want is for Iraq to become some kind of a battleground in a proxy war with Iran or a launching ground for some kind of attack on Iran,” Blinken, a CNN global affairs analyst, said on “CNN Newsroom With Brooke Baldwin.” “So this is just going to galvanize Iraqi politicians to say, ‘We don’t want Americans to stay in Iraq.’”
Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, said that Trump’s comment “puts the Iraqis in a terrible position.”
“We shouldn’t say to two Middle Eastern countries that, ‘Listen, you shouldn’t have relations with a neighbor.’ That’s unrealistic. That goes down badly,” he told CNN. “It’s like a Middle Eastern country coming to the United States saying, ‘Don’t have relations with Canada.’”
Vatanka said the statement “doesn’t seem to be part of a bigger strategy.”
“It seems to be in conflict. It’s a disjointed way of going about business in the Middle East,” he said.
He warned that the President’s statement, if followed up by actual policy moves or left without clarification, could have serious implications for the regional geopolitical situation.
“Right now, for the United States, confusion in the minds of allies or potential allies like the Iraqis, is not a good thing because they don’t have the same amount of political space when they engage in their sort of strategic calculations,” Vatanka said. “If they make a couple of bad mistakes, they’ll be in a very bad place in terms of instability.”
CNN’s Barbara Starr, Ruba Alhenawi, Aqeel Najim and Michael Conte contributed to this report.