U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Joseph Votel appears at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Joseph Votel appears at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Andrew Harnik/AP

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Senior Officials Downplay Trump Plan to Keep Troops In Iraq to ‘Watch Iran’

Some Baghdad watchers say the president’s remarks could imperil the U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

Senior Trump administration officials are working to contain the fallout after President Trump said he wanted American troops in Iraq to “watch Iran,” in a Sunday interview that some Baghdad watchers say could imperil the U.S. military presence there.

On Tuesday, the top general in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, sought to downplay the president’s remarks, insisting to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the military mission in Iraq remains focused on the defeat of ISIS.

“I think the government of Iraq understands the relationship with the view that we have on Iran and understands our concerns with Iran and the variety of destabilizing activities that they conduct around the region,” said Votel, who leads U.S. Central Command. “But having said that, our mission, our military mission on the ground remains very focused on the reason that the government of Iraq asked us to come there.”

Trump’s remarks, in a Sunday interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” drew immediate rebukes from across the Iraqi political spectrum, including from President Barham Salih, an otherwise staunch U.S. ally. American forces are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government to lead the international coalition battling the Islamic State, but there are multiple political factions in Baghdad that oppose the U.S. presence. Among them are powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias that made substantial gains in the Iraqi parliamentary elections last spring. Salih on Monday warned the United States not to “overburden Iraq with your own issues.”

“The U.S. is a major power, but do not pursue your own policy priorities. We live here,” he said.

The United States has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, which Trump has said he has no plans to remove. As the Pentagon prepares to withdraw the 2,200 troops in Syria, as ordered by Trump in December, officials have reportedly sought approval from Baghdad to move some of those forces into Iraq for future strikes on the Islamic State in Syria. (Votel declined to comment publicly on withdrawal planning on Tuesday.)

But in fact, the United States may be at risk of losing even its current presence in Iraq.

Trump’s remarks come as a variety of anti-U.S. political blocs are urging the parliament to vote on legislation that would curtail American military activities in Iraq — or even oust U.S. troops entirely. Although the future of the legislation remains uncertain, the backlash to Trump’s remarks has fueled already-fierce rhetoric against the U.S. military presence there. Analysts say anti-U.S. factions are capitalizing on the political moment to push their proposal. Rival political factions in Iraq were already outraged because Trump did not meet with senior leaders on a whirlwind trip that included a visit to Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq. The move was seen in Baghdad as a snub, in particular by politicians associated with the Shiite nationalist cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who called on Parliament at the time to “play its role and adopt a national, historical attitude and put an end to the frequent violations to the Iraqi sovereignty by the American government and to issue a decision to get the American forces out of Iraq.” (Sadr’s bloc won the largest share of parliamentary votes in May.)

The combination of those two affronts — the CBS interview and the base visit — have made it harder for U.S. allies in Iraq to push back on the pressure they’re getting from the bloc who want to see troops gone, said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute who specializes in the military and security affairs of Iraq.

“It’s a pretty grim moment here,” Knights said in an interview from Baghdad. “Strike one was Al Asad. Strike two was [the CBS interview]. If there’s a strike three, we’re out.”

Senior leaders and politicians across the Iraqi government are debating how to handle the matter now, Knights said, noting that there is a recognition in Iraq that if the United States is forced to leave, it will likely carry the other countries in the global counter-ISIS coalition with it. The issue was likely to come to a boil even without Trump’s remarks, thanks in part to the success of Iran-backed militias in May — but it could have more smoothly been handled in an agreement between the two governments at the cabinet level, Knights said.

“What the Trump visit and Trump statement have done is to create an opening for a piece of legislation to get into Parliament,” he said. “Once they get into parliament, they take on a momentum of their own. If you don’t support the motion, you’re pinning your colors to the U.S. military presence.”

Votel on Tuesday insisted that “the presence of U.S. and coalition forces on the ground was not an election issue” in Iraq because “we continue to be seen by our partners in the region as a valued partner.”

U.S. lawmakers have also expressed concern at the assertion that American forces could monitor Iran from Iraq. Some Democrats say that the Trump administration appears to be laying the groundwork for a military confrontation with Iran — something that the Congress has not explicitly authorized. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have prosecuted the war against ISIS under authorizations passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks; both legal analysts and senior officials say there is way to stretch those authorizations to cover Iran. But last fall, National Security Advisor John Boltonsaid the United States would stay in Syria as long as Iran maintained a presence there; on Sunday, Trump said in his CBS interview said that he wanted to keep “an unbelievable and expensive military base built in Iraq” — an apparent reference to Al Asad — “because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem.”

“I worry that the president is thinking about military action against Iran as something that would be a good idea,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told Votel Tuesday, after pressing him on whether the mission in Iraq had changed from countering ISIS to countering Iran. Votel said that it had not, and that he believed that if the mission were to shift, it would require the United States to obtain permission from the Iraqi government.

A senior administration official who briefed reporters before a meeting of the 79 countries in the counter-ISIS coalition in Washington this week also insisted that the U.S. military mission in Iraq remains focused on the Islamic State.

“Our troops are in Iraq to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS,” the official said.

But, the official continued, “ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS requires focus on Iraqi stability and regional stability. We can’t turn a blind eye towards the malign activities of Iran throughout the region.”

“So I see a consistent mission going forward.”