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Trump Meets With Iraqi Leader Amid Negotiations Over U.S. Troop Levels

2020-08-20 17:40:52
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WASHINGTON — President Trump met with Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi prime minister, at the White House on Thursday, continuing months of negotiations between the two governments over the presence of American troops in the country.

Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief, culminated two days of high-level gatherings between senior American and Iraqi officials that covered a range of security, energy, economic and health issues. But a central focus of the prime minister’s visit is the negotiations, which started in May, on resetting the United States military mission in Iraq.

“We will be discussing military,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re also involved in many oil projects and oil development within their country. And I think we’ve had a very, very good relationship since we started. We’re down to a very small number of soldiers in Iraq now.”

There are about 5,200 American troops in Iraq, whose main missions are counterterrorism and training Iraqi forces. Some of these forces also support roughly 500 U.S. troops in neighboring Syria.

On a call with reporters held before the visit, senior administration officials stressed that there were “no hard and fast timelines, and there are no hard and fast numbers” on when any reduction of troops would happen, but U.S. commanders have already pulled back hundreds of troops from several Iraqi bases, consolidating them at half a dozen locations in the country.

The Pentagon has also advised Mr. Trump that a small contingent — about 2,500 troops or so — should remain to advise and assist the Iraqi government in its fight against pockets of Islamic State fighters, and to act as a bulwark against Iranian influence in Iraq, where skirmishes between the United States and Iran have played out on the country’s soil.

Other members of the 29-country American-led military coalition in Iraq have already cut their numbers in half, to about 1,200 troops, largely because of the coronavirus pandemic that has suspended most training.

“We don’t want to maintain a huge number of soldiers forever in Iraq. We want to get smaller,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, told an online security conference last week, noting that Iraqi forces are largely ready to take on the fight by themselves.

The Pentagon is reluctant to keep more than the absolute minimum of troops in Iraq because they have been attacked by Iranian-backed militias. An attack on an Iraqi base in March killed three soldiers of the American-led military coalition in Iraq, two of them Americans, and wounded 14.

“Everyone’s saying the numbers will come down,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who met with Mr. al-Kadhimi and his top aides this week.

In an interview with The Associated Press before his departure from Baghdad, Mr. al-Kadhimi said Iraq still needed American assistance to counter the Islamic State but not direct military support on the ground.

“In the end, we will still need cooperation and assistance, at levels that today might not require direct and military support, and support on the ground,” Mr. al-Kadhimi said, adding that the cooperation should “reflect the changing nature of terrorism’s threat,” including continued training and weapons support.

In addition to discussion of the American military presence, the strategic talks have also delved into energy, health and the economy.

The Americans want to help expand Iraq’s oil and gas industry, at least partly to help wean Iraq off Iranian energy. Iraq, which has the world’s fifth-largest proven crude oil reserves, often relies on Iran for gas and electricity.

Dan Brouillette, the secretary of energy, said on Wednesday that several American companies, including Honeywell and GE, had signed commercial partnership agreements worth up to $8 billion with the Iraqi energy and oil ministries. As part of the package, Chevron announced an agreement that would allow the company to develop a large oil field in southern Iraq.

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