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Will fallout from Soleimani killing drive U.S. troops from Iraq?

The fallout from the Trump administration’s killing of Qasem Soleimani continues to unfold -- and it could affect the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. On Friday, Sec. of State Mike Pompeo rejected Iraqi calls for the U.S. to plan troop withdrawal. Retired Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmit, who served in the George W. Bush administration, and York University’s Thabit Abdullah join Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The fallout from the Trump administration's killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani continues to unfold.

    It could make it more difficult for American forces to stay in Iraq.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last Sunday, the Iraqi Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for the eviction of the approximately 5,000 U.S. forces in Iraq.

    Today, Iraq's caretaker prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, spoke to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and issued a statement, saying the U.S. should — quote — "send delegates to Iraq to lay down the mechanisms for implementing the decision to safely withdraw troops from Iraq."

    The State Department rejected that request, saying any delegation sent to Iraq wouldn't discuss troop withdrawal.

    And Pompeo said this at the White House of his Abdul-Mahdi's statement.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    He didn't quite characterize the conversation correctly.

    But to the larger, more important point, we are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is. Our mission set there is very clear. We have been there to perform a training mission to help the Iraqi security forces be successful, and to continue the campaign against ISIS, to continue the counter-Da'esh campaign. We're going to continue that mission.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To discuss the future of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, I'm joined by retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt. He served as assistant secretary of state for political military affairs during the George W. Bush administration. And Thabit Abdullah, a professor of Middle East history at York University in Toronto, Canada.

    Thanks very much. Welcome, both of you, to the "NewsHour."

    Let me start with you, Thabit Abdullah.

    The Iraqi prime minister says that he wants U.S. forces out. The majority of Parliament says that they want U.S. forces out. Does that mean the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people actually want U.S. forces out of Iraq?

  • Thabit Abdullah:

    In the long run, for sure.

    The freedom movement in Iraq, the one that has been ongoing since October 1, for the past 100 days, has raised the issue of sovereignty as being one of the most important that it fights for. No Iraqi wants complete isolation from either its neighbors or internationally.

    But there is widespread indignation that the American strike and American practices in general and throughout the long history, really, of modern Iraq has been one in which seems to indicate that the United States doesn't respect the sovereignty of the country.

    So there's quite a bit of indignation about it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Mark Kimmitt, there is certainly indignation in Iraq, but, at the same time, the president told us today that Iraqi leaders are saying one thing in public, one thing in private.

    There were no Sunni votes in that Parliament vote. And some Iraqis privately tell me that, look, the U.S. is fighting ISIS, training the Iraqi military, and helping maintain stability.

    So is that what you're hearing?

  • Mark Kimmitt:

    Well, I mean, for years, I have heard people such as Cas Gazali, and Falih Fayyadh, the head of the PMF, say, they don't want…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senior Iraqi officials.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Kimmitt:

    Senior Iraqi — the most — yes, the most senior Iraqi officials — say they don't want American ground troops on the ground, but they certainly want American assistance, technical, logistics, advising.

    They just don't want to see American boots on the ground actually conducting combat operations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Thabit Abdullah, what about that? Is there a difference between the technical assistance that Iraq continues to need and this notion that you talked about, the indignation of particular operations the U.S. has launched?

  • Thabit Abdullah:

    For sure.

    Nobody questions the incredible expertise that American officials can provide. But expertise is not the only thing that's required for a mission to be successful. You need trust. And this has been deeply shaken by the strike that took place recently.

    It took place — the United States supposedly is targeting an Iranian official. Why does it have to do that on Iraqi land? In addition to that, there's a very long memory of American involvement in Iraq, which doesn't paint it in a very positive light.

    In 1963, there was a CIA-backed coup that brought about 40 years of authoritarian rule that culminated with Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. During the Iran-Iraq War, the United States actually gave assistance to both sides to prolong the conflict.

    And then, during the sanctions, no Iraqi can ever forget Madeleine Albright's infamous statement that we think it's worth it for so many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to die as a result of the sanctions.

    All of this was capped off, of course, by the 2003 occupation, which dismantled Iraqi governing institutions, and instituted sort of fiefdoms, sectarian fiefdoms, and deepened sectarianism.

    So, I'm not — certainly, I don't believe that the people of Iraq don't want the Americans to be there, but there needs to be trust, and this is the wrong way to do it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mark Kimmitt, has the U.S. operations lost Iraqi trust? And there is, of course, quite a lot of history that Iraqis probably remember better than the Americans do.

  • Mark Kimmitt:

    Well, I'd say the answer to that then is, let's leave.

    We left in 2011, when the Iraqi government asked us to leave at that point. We only came back in 2014, at the invitation of the Iraqi government. We have been there for five years now. We have helped them defeat feed Da'esh. We didn't do it alone. We did it with the Iraqi security forces. We did it with the Popular Mobilization Forces.

    But if the situation is so bad that the Americans are seen in such a negative light, then the answer is, we should leave. Sons and daughter, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters want to see those soldiers home, and if they're not wanted there and they're not needed because the Iraqi security forces believe they can hand it, and if we're infringing on their sovereignty, then the best way to solve this problem is do as we did in 2011 and leave.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But does the U.S. military think it's vital to stay in Iraq?

  • Mark Kimmitt:

    That's not the opinion from the United States military.

    It's the decision of the politicians. I wouldn't want to reflect on how good or bad the Iraqi security forces are. I have seen them now for 15 years. I spend half my time working in Baghdad.

    But only America can bring the air support, the intelligence, the logistics, the training. Nobody else can to that. But if our — if the cost of that is an affront to the Iraqi people and it is an affront to their sovereignty, then my recommendation is that we should leave.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thabit Abdullah, General Kimmitt mentioned the cost of that.

    One of the costs of some of these operations, you have written, is of a forecast focus that was a few weeks ago on protesters who were protesting against Iran, now protesting against both Iran and the United States.

    Relatively quickly, if you could, what is the impact on the ground among the civil society and some of those protesters who were focused on Iran of these U.S. operations?

  • Thabit Abdullah:

    Well, thank you for asking that, because that's really the most important issue.

    The — Iraq currently is witnessing one of the most remarkable movements for freedom in its entire history. As I said, it's been ongoing for the past 100 days. It's engulfed a giant — a very large portion of the country. It's really given hope to many youth.

    The chief demands are ones that any freedom-loving person can identify with. They're calling for a complete separation of religion from the state, of deepening democratic reforms, of an end to corruption.

    And they have been able to achieve quite a bit in the resignation of the current corrupt government, in the reform of electoral laws. I don't understand. This was an opportunity, really, for the United States to present itself in a more positive light.

    And yet it threw this really very ill-advised strike at this juncture. I was quite worried that this was going to completely derail the movement.

    And yet, today, there seems to have been new life given to the protest movement, and they're quite determined to continue their demands

    But you are right. At the beginning and for the past three months, the focus has been on Iran. Today, the chief banner in Tahrir Square is that America and Iran are two sides of the same coin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let me just turn to you, Mark Kimmitt, just in the last few seconds I have, just to respond to that.

  • Mark Kimmitt:

    Well, my response would be, it wasn't the killing of Soleimani that caused the American Embassy to be attacked.

    The attack was done as Iran was trying to distract and divert the pressure away from them because they had been getting so much pressure from the protesters. But those weren't these protesters that were in front of the American Embassy. These were Iranian-backed militias and their leaders, one being Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Who was also killed with Soleimani, yes.

  • Mark Kimmitt:

    Who was also killed with Soleimani.

    So I think we need to keep this in perspective and understand, at the end of the day, we need to be careful, the Iraqis need to be careful, because, as President Trump showed, as he's done with Syria, he could leave Iraq with a tweet.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    General Mark Kimmitt, Thabit Abdullah from York University, thank you very much to you both.

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