Iraq parliament passes resolution to expel US-led coalition troops from country

Iraq’s parliament passed on Sunday a resolution calling on the government to end all foreign troop presence in Iraq, as backlash grew after the killing of a top Iranian military commander and an Iraqi militia leader in a US strike in Baghdad.

“The government commits to revoke its request for assistance from the international coalition fighting Islamic State due to the end of military operations in Iraq and the achievement of victory,” the resolution read.

“The Iraqi government must work to end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, airspace or water for any reason.”

The resolution’s main aim is to get the United States to withdraw some its approximately 5,000 troops present in different parts of Iraq. It reflects the concern of many in Iraq that the US strike killing Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis could engulf them in a major war between two bigger powers.

“The government should work on ending the presence of all foreign forces,” Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi said after the vote.

Parliament resolutions, unlike laws, are non-binding to the Iraqi government, but this one has the backing of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who had earlier called on parliament to end foreign troop presence.

Speaking at the beginning of the session, Abdul Mahdi said he recommended parliament take urgent measures to remove foreign troops, a move he said was in the interest of both Iraq and the United States, Reuters reported.

“Despite the internal and external difficulties that we might face, it remains best for Iraq on principle and practically,” Abdul Mahdi told parliament in a speech.

Abdul Mahdi called the US killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis a “political assassination” and a violation of Iraqi sovereignty, according to Reuters.

Abdul-Mahdi resigned last year in response to the anti-government protests that have engulfed Baghdad and the mostly Shiite southern provinces. Political factions have been unable to agree on a new prime minister, and Abdul-Mahdi continues in a caretaker capacity.

A blow to US-led coalition against Islamic State group

The resolution before the parliament on Sunday specifically called for ending an agreement in which Washington sent troops to Iraq more than four years ago to help in the fight against the Islamic State group.

Despite decades of enmity between Iran and the United States, Iranian-backed militia and US troops fought side by side in Iraq from 2014-17 against Islamic State group militants, their common enemy.

A pullout of the estimated 5,200 US troops could not only allow ISIS to make a comeback but could also enable Iran to deepen its influence in Iraq.

Amid Iran’s threats of vengeance, the US-led military coalition in Iraq announced Sunday it is putting the fight against Islamic State militants on hold to focus on protecting its troops and bases. The coalition said it is suspending the training of Iraqi forces and other operations in support of the battle against ISIS.

US reactions

There was no immediate comment on the Iraqi move from the US State Department or Pentagon.

Asked shortly before the parliamentary vote whether the US would comply with an Iraqi government request for American troops to leave, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would not answer directly.

“We’ll watch. We’re following very closely what’s taking place in the Iraqi Parliament,” he told CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “It is the United States that is prepared to help the Iraqi people get what it is they deserve and continue our mission there to take down terrorism from ISIS and others in the region.”

US Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Fox News that the parliamentary vote is “a bit concerning.”

“The Iranian government is trying to basically take over Iraq’s political system. Iran is bribing Iraqi politicians. To the Iraqi people, do not allow your politicians to turn Iraq into a proxy of Iran,” he said.

Vying factions in Iraq

The Iraqi measure to expel foreign troops was backed by most Shiite members of parliament, who hold a majority of seats.

The request was put forward Sunday by the largest bloc in the legislature, known as Fatah. That bloc includes leaders associated with the Iran-backed paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units, which were a major force in the fight against IS.

Many Sunni and Kurdish legislators did not show up for the session, apparently because they oppose abolishing the deal. One Sunni member of parliament told Reuters that both groups feared that kicking out US-led coalition forces would leave Iraq vulnerable to an insurgency, undermine security and heighten the power of Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

The 168 lawmakers present for the vote were just three more than the quorum.

“This killing of Soleimani has changed the entire dynamic … of what was already a fragile relationship” between the US and Iraq, says FRANCE 24’s international affairs correspondent Douglas Herbert.

Herbert adds that Soleimani’s killing has pushed moderate Iraqi lawmakers, who saw US presence as the lesser of two evils, into greater agreement with pro-Iran hardliners in the country’s parliament.

Influential Shiite figures respond

Populist Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said on Sunday that the parliamentary resolution calling on the government to end foreign troop presence did not go far enough and called on local and foreign militia groups to unite.

“I consider this a weak response insufficient against American violation of Iraqi sovereignty and regional escalation,” Sadr, who leads the largest bloc in parliament, said in a letter to the assembly read out by a supporter.

Sadr said a security agreement with the United States should be cancelled immediately, the US embassy should be closed down, US troops should be expelled in a humiliating manner, and communication with the US government should be criminalised.

“Finally, I call specifically on the Iraqi resistance groups and the groups outside Iraq more generally to meet immediately and announce the formation of the International Resistance Legions,” he said.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s powerful, Iran-allied Hezbollah movement, meanwhile said the US military in the Middle East would pay the price for Soleimani’s death and US soldiers and officers would return home in coffins.

‘No to Iran, no to America!’

In at least one city in the south of Iraq, where youth-dominated rallies have for three months denounced Iraq’s ruling class as corrupt, inept and beholden to Iran, protesters took to the streets on Sunday to denounce both Iran and the US as “occupiers”.

Protesters in the Shiite-majority south expressed anger that the growing threat of war between the rivals was derailing their anti-government movement.

“No to Iran, no to America!” chanted hundreds of young Iraqis as they marched through the southern protest hotspot of Diwaniyah.

Some protesters initially rejoiced at Soleimani’s killing, having blamed the Iranian commander for propping up the government they have been trying to bring down since early October. But joy turned to worry as protesters realised fresh threats of war could drown out their calls for peaceful reform of Iraq’s government.

In a bold move, young protesters in the southern city of Nasiriyah blocked a mourning procession for Soleimani and top Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis from reaching their protest camp. Outraged pro-Iran mourners fired on the protesters, wounding three, medical sources told AFP.

In the southern port city of Basra, protesters hurled rocks at a mourning procession for Soleimani, prompting his supporters to respond in kind.

“We refuse a proxy war on Iraqi territory and the creation of crisis after crisis,” said student Raad Ismail.

In Diwaniyah, young children present carried posters in the shape of Iraq and waved the country’s flag.

“We're taking a stance against the two occupiers: Iran and the US,” one demonstrator told AFP.

Nearby, a teenage girl held a handwritten sign reading: “Peace be on the land created to live in peace, but which has yet to see a single peaceful day.”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)