U.S. says it won’t discuss withdrawing troops from Iraq, as Iraq’s leader requested

click to enlarge Secretary of State Mike Pompeo approaches the lectern in the White House briefing room in Washington on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. - ERIN SCHAFF/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Erin Schaff/The New York Times
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo approaches the lectern in the White House briefing room in Washington on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020.
By Edward Wong and Megan Specia
The New York Times Company

WASHINGTON — The State Department on Friday rebuffed the Iraqi government’s request to begin discussions on pulling out troops, saying that any U.S. officials going to Baghdad during a state of heightened tensions would not discuss a “troop withdrawal,” as the Iraqi prime minister had requested. Instead, discussions would be about the “appropriate force posture in the Middle East.”

The statement from Washington was a direct rebuttal to Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi of Iraq and was certain to add to the friction between the two nations.

The prime minister said earlier Friday that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to send a delegation from the United States to discuss steps for the withdrawal of the approximately 5,200 U.S. troops from his country, in the aftermath of a deadly U.S. military strike ordered by President Donald Trump that many Iraqis say violated their country’s sovereignty.

“We are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is,” Pompeo said at a news conference after the State Department had made its announcement. He stressed that the mission of the United States in Iraq was to train Iraqi forces to fight the Islamic State group, and “we’re going to continue that mission.”

“But as times change and we get to a place where we can deliver up on what I believe and the president believes is our right structure, with fewer resources dedicated to that mission, we will do so,” he added.

Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also announced new sanctions on Iranian officials and on a few companies, including two in China, involved in the production and export of Iranian steel and other metals. The Trump administration had already imposed major sanctions on Iran’s metals industry after Trump’s withdrawal in 2018 from a landmark nuclear agreement with Iran, so analysts said the new sanctions would have little additional impact.

Iraqi lawmakers voted Sunday to expel U.S. forces after the U.S. drone strike that killed 10 people in a two-car convoy, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander; four of his Iranian aides; and five Iraqis, including a senior militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The prime minister has not signed the bill yet, but had been criticizing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq since a series of recent actions by the U.S. military.