BAGHDAD – The United States’ acting defense secretary made a surprise visit to Iraq on Tuesday after he made a similar trip to Afghanistan.
Patrick Shanahan was expected to meet with the Arab country’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to discuss the future of the US troops deployed in Iraq, according to the state-run news agency NINA.
NINA reported that US army commanders and senior Iraqi officials were set to take part in the meeting, giving no further details.
Shanahan’s visit came after Iraq slammed President Donald Trump’s remarks that US troops would remain in the country for the purpose of monitoring Iran.
Iraqi President Barham Salih said Baghdad would not allow the US to use its troops stationed in the country to watch neighboring Iran.
Around 5,200 US troops remain deployed in a dozen military bases in Iraq.
Last year, Trump announced the US decision to re-impose extensive sanctions on the Islamic Republic and pull out from the 2015 nuclear deal which sought to limit Tehran’s nuclear activities; the 2015 nuclear deal had been concluded between Iran and six world powers and led to hopes of rapprochement between the Middle Eastern power and major world powers.
On Dec. 26, Trump surprised the US forces stationed in Iraq with a visit but left without meeting Abdul-Mahdi, a matter that angered Iraqi officials.
Iraq is a close ally of the United States and also maintains good relations with Iran, a country that had backed the Shiite militias that fought in the offensive against the Islamic State terror organization.
The Iraqi government declared the country’s total liberation from IS in December 2017, after the terror organization was expelled from the large swaths of northern and western Iraq that it had controlled from mid-2014 until the end of that year.
Trump announced in December 2018 the withdrawal of US troops from Syria but has not set a specific date for this withdraw yet, a move that led to the resignation of Shanahan’s successor, US Defense Secretary James Mattis.
On Monday, Shanahan made his first trip since assuming office after Mattis’ resignation.
Shanahan said there were no orders to pull troops from Afghanistan – one of the Taliban’s key demands in peace negotiations with US officials.
“Afghans must control their own future and be involved in ongoing peace discussions, and there are no orders to reduce US troop levels in Afghanistan,” Shanahan said, according to Colonel Dave Butler, a spokesman for Resolute Support, the NATO training mission in Afghanistan.