Pentagon chief in Iraq to discuss future of US troops

Pat Shanahan expects to reassure angry Iraqi officials about US military mission

epa07361328 (FILE) - Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan speaks during a Missile Defense Review announcement at the Pentagon in Arlington, VA, USA, 17 January 2019 (reissued 11 February 2019). US acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan arrived in Afghanistan on 11 February for a surprise visit.  EPA/MARTIN H. SIMON / POOL
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US Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan arrived in Iraq on Tuesday on an unannounced visit in a bid to ease heightening tensions between Washington and Baghdad.

The future of US forces in Iraq have been put in question after President Donald Trump said early February that he would keep American troops stationed there to monitor Iran following withdrawal from neighbouring Syria and also strike ISIS from Iraq.

Mr Shananhan, who flew in from Afghanistan, is expected to meet with military commanders and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

Shortly before taking off from Washington, Mr Shanahan said he wanted to hear first hand about Iraq’s fight against remnants of ISIS.

Nearly 16 years after the US invasion of Iraq, about 5,000 US troops remain stationed in the country.

Mr Trump’s remarks had angered Iraqi officials, many of which are calling for a draft bill to expel the US military presence.

The top US official visited Al Asad base, located north-west of Baghdad, in December and failed to meet with Iraqi officials, which triggered tensions.

Iraqi politicians say that Mr Trump's remarks on Iran and Syria are not part of the US mission in Iraq, describing the move as a violation of the country’s sovereignty.

Mr Trump reiterated that the US has spent a fortune on Al Asad base, an asset that Washington should hold on to.

The shift in US foreign policy has become a major debate in Iraq, especially after Shiite politicians backed by Iran made significant gains during parliamentary elections last year.

Tensions between Washington and Baghdad were formed as Mr Shanahan took over as the acting Pentagon chief after Jim Mattis resigned as defense secretary in December.

It remains unclear whether Mr Trump will nominate Mr Shanahan for Senate confirmation.

The trip to Baghdad will mark Mr Shanahan's first visit to the country.

US troops fighting in Iraq has taken a heavy toll on Washington.

Former President Barack Obama pulled troops out of Iraq in December 2011, but sent them back in smaller numbers in 2014 after ISIS swept across the border from Syria and took control of much of western and northern Iraq.