BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON--Washington on Friday spurned an Iraqi request to prepare to pull out its troops, amid heightened U.S.-Iranian tensions after the U.S. killing of an Iranian commander in Baghdad, and said it was exploring a possible expansion of NATO's presence there.
Seeking to tighten pressure on its foe, the United States meanwhile imposed more sanctions on Iran, responding to an attack on U.S. troops in Iraq launched by Tehran in retaliation for the death of General Qassem Soleimani.
Iraq could bear the brunt of any further violence between its neighbour Iran and the United States, its leaders caught in a bind as Washington and Tehran are also the Iraqi government's main allies and vie for influence there. President Donald Trump said Iran had probably planned to attack the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and was aiming to strike four U.S. embassies when Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike.
"We will tell you probably it was going to be the embassy in Baghdad," Trump said in a clip of an interview with Fox News. "I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies."
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi made his request for preparations for a U.S. troop withdrawal in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday in line with a vote in Iraq's parliament last week, his office said. Abdul Mahdi asked Pompeo to "send delegates to put in place the tools to carry out the parliament's decision," his office said in a statement, adding that the forces used in the killing had entered Iraq or used its airspace without permission.
The State Department said any U.S. delegation would not discuss the withdrawal of U.S. troops as their presence in Iraq was "appropriate."
"There does, however, need to be a conversation between the U.S. and Iraqi governments not just regarding security, but about our financial, economic, and diplomatic partnership," spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.
Pompeo told reporters a NATO delegation was in Washington on Friday to discuss the future of the Iraq mission and a plan to "get burden-sharing right in the region."
Separately, the State Department said Pompeo had discussed Iran with Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne as well as "the opportunity for an expanded NATO force in Iraq and appropriate burden sharing."
The latest flare-up in the long covert war between Iran and the United States began with the U.S. killing of Soleimani, Iran's top general, in a drone strike on Jan. 3. Iran responded on Wednesday by firing missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq. In the aftermath, both sides backed off from intensifying the conflict but the region remains tense.
Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric condemned the U.S.-Iranian struggle happening on Iraqi soil, saying it risked plunging his country and the wider Middle East into deeper conflict. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said it was Iraqis who stood to suffer most from the U.S.-Iranian conflict. In a message delivered through a representative at Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, Sistani said no foreign powers should be allowed to decide Iraq's fate.
"The latest dangerous aggressive acts, which are repeated violations of Iraqi sovereignty, are a part of the deteriorating situation" in the region, Sistani said. "Iraq must govern itself and there must be no role for outsiders in its decision-making."