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How Trump’s remarks on Iran strain U.S.’s welcome in Iraq

Over the weekend, President Trump told CBS News that the U.S. mission in Iraq should expand to include watching Iran -- a change that would exceed what Iraq has invited the U.S. to do in its country. The statement sparked criticism from Iraqi leadership, as well as reassurances from the top American commander in the Middle East that the U.S. respects Iraq's wishes. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported, the top U.S. military commander for the Middle East was on Capitol Hill today.

    In addition to the fight against ISIS, he was asked about recent comments by President Trump suggesting American troops in Iraq could shift their mission.

    And, as Nick Schifrin reports, those comments about U.S. troops watching Iran have sparked deep concern in Iraq.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Near the Iraqi-Syrian border, an Iraqi soldier and his American adviser line up artillery to strike ISIS.

    Outside Baghdad, U.S. special operations forces train Iraq's elite counterterrorism service. And Iraqi soldiers learn to fire American rifles from anti-ISIS coalition troops.

    These scenes of partnership, filmed by the U.S. military over the past year, show what Iraq has invited the U.S. to do; 5,200 U.S. troops train Iraqi security forces, and target ISIS fighters who lost territory, but resumed insurgent tactics.

    But, this weekend, President Trump told CBS' Margaret Brennan the mission should expand.

  • Donald Trump:

    And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran, because Iran is a real problem.

  • Margaret Brennan:

    Whoa. That's news. You're keeping troops in Iraq because you want to be able to strike in Iran?

  • Donald Trump:

    No, because I want to be able to watch Iran. All I want to do is be able to watch.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But even watching Iran exceeds the tasks Iraq has approved.

    Today, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who has been working with the United States, criticized President Trump.

  • Adil Abdul-Mahdi:

    I don't think that such statements are useful. In fact, they won't help much. And I hope that he would back down from them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In a statement, First Deputy Speaker Hassan al-Kaabi repeated a vow that Parliament would pass a law terminating the security agreement with America, in addition to ending the presence of American military trainers and advisers and foreigners on Iraqi soil.

    And on a Lebanon-based TV network on Sunday, Iranian-backed militia spokesman Jaafar Al-Husseini hinted militias had the capacity to evict the U.S.

  • Jaafar Al-Husseini:

    All of our options are open in front of us. We have the ability and resources to execute them.

  • Feisal Istrabadi:

    What the president's remarks have done is make it more difficult for even America's closest allies in the Iraqi political class to continue to advocate for the American presence in Iraq.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Feisal Istrabadi is a former Iraqi diplomat and directs Indiana University's Center for the Study of the Middle East. The Iraqi Parliament was already debating a bill that would evict the U.S.

    That momentum will increase and put pressure on Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who leads a government considered technically capable, but has no natural constituency.

  • Feisal Istrabadi:

    He was turned to by the political parties in Parliament and asked to form a government. He is in that sense a relatively weak prime minister. And you don't want the prime minister in a political battle with Parliament, because, in the Iraqi system, the prime minister will always lose.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, the top commander in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, tried to reassure that the U.S. respected Iraqi wishes.

  • Joseph Votel:

    Our military mission on the ground remains very focused on the reason that the government of Iraq asked us to come there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And he suggested the president's comments had not become a military order.

  • Virginia Democrat Senator Tim Kaine:

  • Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.:

    And ,as far as you know, there's not a change in the definition of the mission, at least as far as the Pentagon is concerned?

  • Joseph Votel:

    I have no additional tasks that have been given to me with regard to that.

  • Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.:

    If the U.S. were to change its definition of the mission in Iraq to be a mission about watching Iran, wouldn't it be pretty important to have Iraq agree that that would be the focus of the mission, if we were to be having troops in their country to carry out such a mission?

  • Joseph Votel:

    Senator, we are in Iraq at the invitation of the government, so, yes, I agree.

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    I think that this statement is not enough.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Abbas Kadhim leads the Atlantic Council's Iraq Initiative and recently met with President Salih.

    Kadhim says, thanks to President Trump's statement, Iran's powerful allies can now use the Iraqi constitution to argue against a U.S. presence, because it requires Iraq to adhere to the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states.

  • Abbas Kadhim:

    Iran has more friends inside Iraqi Parliament and also inside the government and inside even the public. And these friends are willing to indulge Iran.

    Before Sunday, they didn't have the votes. Now I am told by some Parliament members that they have the votes at least to have it pass through the first reading. That is a major shift.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Iraqi leaders admit they knew all along U.S. troops in Iraq were likely conducting extra missions, even watching Iran. But until Sunday, that was never made public.

  • Feisal Istrabadi:

    That veil of plausible deniability, or willful ignorance, whatever you want to call it, that's been lifted. The president of the United States has blatantly announced what his agenda actually is.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that means, for the U.S. and Iraqi officials whose agenda is to improve Iraq, their mission became much harder.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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