US troops from Syria to leave Iraq in four weeks

Iraqi defence minister's comments follow visit of Pentagon chief Mark Esper

Defense Secretary Mark Esper talks with U.S. troops in front of an F-22 fighter jet deployed to Prince  Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019.  (AP Photo/Lolita Baldor)
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US troops withdrawing from north-eastern Syria to Iraq are in transit and will leave the country within four weeks, Iraq's defence minister said Wednesday.

Najah Al Shammari made the remarks after a meeting in Baghdad with visiting US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, who arrived as Iraqi leaders chafed over reports that the US might want to increase the number of troops based in Iraq, at least temporarily.

Iraq's military said on Tuesday that American troops leaving north-eastern Syria did not have permission to stay in Iraq.

Mr Esper earlier said all US troops leaving Syria would continue to conduct operations against ISIS from Iraq to prevent its resurgence in the region.

He later said the troops would be in Iraq temporarily until they were able to go home, but no time period was set.

Mr Esper said on Wednesday that the US had no plans to leave those troops in Iraq "interminably" and that he planned to talk with Iraqi leaders about the matter.

"Our key priority with Iraq is encouraging the continued secure, stable, independent Iraq," a senior US defence official said.

On Tuesday, an agreement was struck between Ankara and Moscow that Syrian and Russian forces would send troops to north-east Syria to remove Kurdish fighters and their weapons from areas near the border with Turkey.

Hours after that deal was announced, the Turkish Defence Ministry said the US had told Turkey that the withdrawal of Kurdish militants from the "safe zone" Ankara demanded in northern Syria was complete.

The Russia-Turkey agreement struck in Sochi endorsed the return of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's forces to the border alongside Russian troops, replacing the Americans who had patrolled the region for years with their Kurdish allies.

US President Donald Trump decided this month to withdraw all 1,000 US troops from the region, a move criticised as a betrayal of Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside American soldiers against ISIS.

Since then, the Pentagon has said the Trump administration is considering keeping some troops in north-eastern Syria to help ensure ISIS and others do not profit from oilfields in the region.

Any decision to keep additional US troops in Iraq is likely to be heavily scrutinised in a country where Iran has been steadily amassing influence.

Iraq is in the middle of a crisis. Protests over high unemployment, poor public services and corruption erupted on October 1, prompting a violent security crackdown.

Protesters blame graft and infighting among political leaders for failing to improve their lives even in peacetime, two years after ISIS was declared defeated in Iraq.

"Iraqi politics are in a delicate state," said Jon Alterman, Middle East expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"There's no Iraqi support for the country becoming a principal US garrison in the Middle East."

But Baghdad did not want to alienate Washington, which has been a key ally in fighting ISIS militants over the past five years, Mr Alterman said.

Extra US troops would add to about 5,000 publicly acknowledged American soldiers already in the country, training Iraqi forces and helping to ensure that ISIS militants do not make a comeback.