Iraqi officials unite against US presence in the country

Government says it supports parliament's decision to expel troops from the county as an Iranian-backed political bloc threatens military escalation

epa08127441 Iraqi university students chant slogans as they take part in a demonstration in front of the Iraqi ministry of higher educations in Baghdad, Iraq, 14 January 2020. Thousands of Iraqi university students have gone on strike to support protesters against the Iraqi government corruption, which started since 01 October 2019.  EPA/MURTAJA LATEEF
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The Iraqi government said on Tuesday that it will “not back down” from supporting parliament’s decision to expel foreign forces from the country, as a populist cleric called for protests against outside meddling.

Baghdad is caught in the midst of tensions between the US and Iran following the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani earlier this month.

Suleimani was Iran’s top external enforcer and oversaw pro-Iranian militia across the region.

The death of the commander on Iraqi soil pushed the parliament to expel foreign troops from the country, including US forces. The vote was a non-binding resolution meaning that the government is not legally bound by parliament’s resolution.

But the US State department said it will not hold discussions with Iraq regarding US troop withdrawal from the country.

“The government will not back down from supporting parliament’s decision to remove foreign forces from Iraqi territory," Prime Minister’s spokesperson William Warda said in a statement.

“Iraq will not sign a new deal to keep American forces in the country,” he said.

A strategic framework agreement signed in 2008 between Washington and Baghdad called for a close defence co-operation to deter threats to Iraqi “sovereignty, security and territorial integrity".

The government's call comes as an Iraqi political alliance, affiliated with Iran, threatened US troops with military escalation if they refuse to withdraw from the country.

The Iran-backed Fatah alliance has the second largest bloc in parliament.

“The Iraqi government is required to take measures to end the presence of foreign forces in the country, " head of the bloc, Muhammad Al Ghabban, said.

Mr Al Ghabban warned that any “delay by the American will result in an escalation and military confrontation”.

Populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr called late on Tuesday for one million people to take to the streets against the presence of US troops.

"Iraq's land and sovereignty is being violated by invasive forces," Mr Al Sadr said on Twitter.

"I'm calling for a peaceful one million man Iraqi revolution to condemn American presence and its violations in Iraq,” he said.

Iranian-backed militias and a US-led military coalition have both helped Iraq defeat ISIS, which overran a third of its territory in 2014.

They have also been embroiled in a proxy conflict in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

The Iraqi ambassador to Brussels, Sadiq Al Rikabi, discussed with Nato’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, the recent attacks on Iraqi soil.

“Iraq rejects the attacks on its land and considers it a violation of its sovereignty,” Mr Al Rakabi said.

The Iraqi ambassador said that Baghdad is co-operating with international partners to reduce escalation and tensions between the US and Iran.

Mr Stoltenberg affirmed Nato’s “respect for Iraqi sovereignty and its co-operation with the international community to combat terrorism”.