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Are U.S. military leaders prepared to withdraw from Iraq?

Iraq’s government is demanding that U.S. troops leave the country in the wake of last week's drone strike that killed an Iranian general and an Iraqi militia commander. But on Friday, as violent protests continued in Iraq, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. would not withdraw. The Washington Post’s Baghdad Bureau Chief Louisa Loveluck joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Iraq's government is demanding that U.S. troops leave the country in the wake of the killing of an Iranian general, an Iraqi militia commander and several other Iraqis last week. Yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. will not withdraw, but is open to discussions. There have been violent protests against both the U.S. and Iran in the past few days. Two Iraqi journalists were killed covering one of those protests in Basra yesterday.

    Joining us now for more on the situation in Iraq is The Washington Post's Baghdad Bureau Chief Louisa Loveluck. So it seems that the Iraqi leaders here are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, you have the United States, who is a force that says they're not going to leave and they have the power of the military. And then on the other hand, you've got your neighbor, Iran, which is also a significant force in the region.

  • Louisa Loveluck:

    Well the Iraqis suddenly find themselves in an incredibly difficult position right now, and the politics of this incredibly heated. It's very, very important not to underestimate the anger at the unilateral military action we've seen by the United States on Iraqi soil over the last few weeks. Of course, there was the killing of Qassem Soleimani. There was also the killing of multiple militiamen in Iraqi military bases. And that has really piled pressure on the prime minister to get the troops out.

    The question now really is whether a moment to sort of, for cooler heads to prevail, for the politics to cool down a bit, and for a deal to be thrashed out behind the scenes can be found. It's very difficult to know right now which way that is going to go.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now, we should clarify that there are politicians in Iraq, there are people in Iraq who do not want the United States to leave. But that's not the way that the vote was reflected in parliament recently. So what kind of kind of backroom conversations are happening, let's say, in the Iraqi parliament to try to say, OK, we made this particular show, this display of our anger in parliament two weeks from now. Let's calm down and let's figure out a more moderate solution.

  • Louisa Loveluck:

    I think it's very important to distinguish between who holds the balance of power in the parliament and who is actually, what individual parliamentarians actually think. When you look at the vote that passed last Sunday, urging the prime minister to expel foreign troops, it was an overwhelmingly Shiite vote, often heavily influenced in part by Iranian linked groups.

    When you look at the people who voted, the parliament barely reached quorum, Sunni lawmakers barely turned up, Kurdish rule makers that turned up. There were threats circulating, telling people that if they didn't vote to expel U.S. troops, they would be, they would face the, quote, "revenge of the people." And so this is certainly something, a vote that was very politicized and a vote that was not representative of all lawmakers. But these groups certainly do represent the prevailing balance of power in the country right now.

    And as you say, Iraq is caught between a rock and a hard place. It has military allies in the United States. It has a neighbor and a much stronger partner in many ways right now in Iran. And it's certainly the Iranians that are, I think, winning.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What is the practical possibility of withdrawing all U.S. troops? Are military leaders prepared for that?

  • Louisa Loveluck:

    That's the big question. I think it's a very real possibility that within the space of a year, we will have had the drawdown of some U.S. troops. The coalition is overwhelmingly made up of U.S. troops, but there are many other nations in it. And I know there are certainly people behind the scenes, the Europeans separately to the United States, looking at different types of troop presence, which could remain.

    The big issue, of course, is that these troops are explicitly in the country to fight the Islamic State. They have defeated the Islamic State in its caliphate. That is no more. But the group is, it's it's regrouping. It's trying to launch a comeback. It's only got the capacity to launch small scale attacks right now. But the Iraqi security forces who have been trained through this entire period to keep rolling back those gains, keep the force contained, are not yet at a stage where international forces certainly believe that they could win that fight on their end.

    So, should the coalition withdraw in a sort of quick and hasty manner? I think it's a real possibility that the Islamic State militants, insofar as they are fit, could move from the defensive where they are now onto the offensive and that could start having repercussions, for the national security of Iraq, the national security of Syria, and ultimately the wider region.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yeah. Louisa Loveluck, Washington Post's Baghdad Bureau Chief joining us via Skype tonight. Thanks so much.

  • Louisa Loveluck:

    Thanks.

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