News ID: 260596
Published: 0207 GMT October 22, 2019

American troops leaving Syria cannot stay in Iraq: Baghdad

American troops leaving Syria cannot stay in Iraq: Baghdad

US vehicles withdrawing from northern Syria, in Erbil, Iraq, October 21, 2019

US troops leaving Syria and heading to neighboring Iraq do not have permission to stay in the country, Iraq's military said Tuesday as American forces continued to pull out of northern Syria after Turkey's invasion of the border region.

The statement appears to contradict US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who has said that under the current plan, all US troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and the military would continue to conduct operations against Daesh terrorists to prevent their resurgence in the region.

On Tuesday, Esper said he plans to talk to Iraqi leaders to work out details about the US plan to send American troops withdrawing from Syria to Iraq, adding that the US has no plans to have those troops stay in Iraq "interminably."

Speaking to reporters at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, Esper said he'll have a discussion with the Iraqi defense minister on Wednesday. He said the aim is to pull US soldiers out and "eventually get them home."

President Donald Trump ordered the bulk of US troops in Syria to withdraw after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear in a phone call that his forces were about to invade Syria to push back Syrian Kurdish fighters whom Turkey considers terrorists.

The pullout largely abandons the Syrian Kurdish allies who have fought the Daesh group. Between 200 and 300 US troops will remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf.

Angered at feeling betrayed, some residents in areas populated predominantly by Kurds in both Syria and Iraq have pelted the withdrawing troops. On Monday, a US convoy that was driving down an avenue in the Kurdish-dominated city of Qamishly was pelted with potatoes.

"Like rats, America is running away," one man shouted in Arabic at the vehicles.

Near the Iraqi city of Irbil, a small group of young men threw stones at a convoy of US armored vehicles, shouting obscenities as it drove down a main highway, according to a video circulating online.

In a statement, the Iraqi Kurdish regional government said the positive role played by US-led coalition forces in northern Iraq, protecting and assisting its residents, should not be confused with an "unpopular political decision" that has been taken — a reference to Trump's sudden move to withdraw troops from Syria.

The number of American forces in Iraq has remained small due to political sensitivities in the country, after years of what some Iraqis consider US occupation during the war that began in 2003. It is a potentially explosive issue.

The US currently has more than 5,000 American forces in Iraq, under an agreement between the two countries. The US pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011 when combat operations there ended, but they went back in after Daesh began to take over large swaths of the country in 2014.

After the Iraqi government announced victory against Daesh in 2017, calls for an American troop withdrawal increased amid concerns about America's long-term intentions, particularly after it withdraws its troops from Syria.

Earlier this year, Trump angered Iraqi politicians and some factions by arguing he would keep US troops in Iraq and use it as a base to strike Daesh terrorist group targets inside Syria as needed. In February, he infuriated Iraqi leaders when he said US troops should stay in Iraq to monitor neighboring Iran.

Earlier this week, Esper did not rule out the idea that US forces would conduct counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria. But he said those details will be worked out over time.

His comments were the first to specifically lay out where American troops will go as they leave Syria and what the counter-Daesh fight could look like. Esper said he has spoken to his Iraqi counterpart about the plan to shift the estimated 1,000 troops leaving Syria into western Iraq.

The statement by the Iraqi military, however, said that all American troops that withdrew from Syria have permission to enter northern Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, and then from there to be relocated out of Iraq.

"These forces do not have any approval to remain in Iraq," it said. The statement did not specify a time limit for how long the troops can stay there.

Meanwhile, US troops continued to pull out of northern Syria. Reports of sporadic clashes have continued between Turkish-backed forces and the Syria Kurdish forces despite a five-day cease-fire agreement hammered out on Thursday between US and Turkish leaders.

Esper has said the troops going into Iraq will have two missions.

"One is to help defend Iraq and two is to perform a counter-Daesh mission as we sort through the next steps," he said. "Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal, but that's the game plan right now."



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