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The U.S.-Iraqi Relationship Can Still Be Salvaged

The Trump Administration Should Mend Fences and Retain a Vital Troop Presence

A U.S. soldier in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, April 2003 Francesco Zizola / Redux

One of the most dramatic consequences of killing Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani is unfolding at a rapid pace: the severing of ties between the United States and Iraq. There is still time to salvage this most critical relationship, but doing so will depend on the willingness and ability of the Trump administration to change the tone of the conversation in very short order. The current U.S. approach—calling for sanctions against Iraq if it demands the exit of American forces—risks unnecessarily creating an enemy out of a friend.

On January 5, the Iraqi parliament voted to expel all foreign forces from Iraqi territory, including the 5,200 U.S. forces currently in the country at the invitation of its government. Iraqi parliamentarians had threatened such moves on other occasions, such as last February, when U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that he wanted to keep American troops in Iraq to keep an eye on Iran. 

This time is different. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi worked to defuse the political firestorm that arose out of Trump’s tweet last year. But on Sunday, he stood in support of the resolution to evict U.S. troops. Similarly, Iraq’s most influential religious leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has been a voice of moderation and indirectly supportive of the United States’ presence in Iraq, vigorously criticized the strike on Soleimani through his representative at Friday prayers. Suffice it to say that U.S.-Iraqi relations have not been worse since Saddam Hussein sat comfortably in a Baghdad palace adorned with multiple giant replicas of his head.

Abdul-Mahdi, in his capacity as caretaker prime minister, is now obliged to discuss the departure of U.S. forces with Washington. Those U.S. forces are in Iraq under an agreement formalized by an exchange of letters between foreign ministers, so the prime minister—not the parliament—holds the cards. Rather than taking the resolution for a done deal, the U.S. administration should approach this conversation

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