US general sees Baghdad keeping American troops in country

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The Iraqi government will want to keep a US military presence on its territory to fight the Islamic State group, a US general predicted Wednesday on the eve of strategic negotiations between the two governments.

“It is my belief that the government of Iraq is going to want to retain US and coalition forces,” General Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of US forces in the region, said in an online conference sponsored by a Washington think tank.

“And as you know, from my perspective, we re in Iraq to finish the defeat of ISIS and to support Iraq as they finish that defeat and come to a final, final victory against it,” he said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed separately at a news conference that a “strategic dialogue” between the United States and Iraq will begin Thursday.

He said the US delegation will be led by David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, and include representatives from the Defense and Energy Departments, Treasury and other agencies.

“With new threats on the horizon, including the global coronavirus pandemic, collapsed oil prices and a large budget deficit, it s imperative that the United States and Iraq meet as strategic partners to plan a way forward for the mutual benefit of each of our two nations,” Pompeo said.

Relations between the two countries have been strained since a series of attacks on US interests in Iraq in late 2019 that Washington has attributed to Iran or its paramilitary allies in Iraq.

They worsened after the US military killed a prominent Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, and his Iraqi lieutenant in an air strike near Baghdad in early January.

The attack intensified anti-American sentiment in Iraq and prompted the parliament to vote to formally demand the withdrawal of US troops, based in the country as part of an international coalition against the Islamic State group.

US President Donald Trump has pledged to disengage US forces from costly theaters of operations in the Middle East, but at the same time, the administration has said it does not intend to simply withdraw from Iraq.

There are currently about 5,200 US troops in Iraq, which the United States invaded in 2003 to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

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