BAGHDAD — Iraq’s president said Friday he does not see any “serious” opposition to the presence of American forces in Iraq, provided they continue to be there specifically to assist Iraqi forces in the fight against the Islamic State group.
Barham Salih said there is “general consensus” that Iraq needs continued collaboration with the forces, which he said can go on “as long as it is necessary.” He also warned that the threat from ISIS extremists is far from over, despite the announcement of the group’s territorial defeat in Syria last week.
Salih spoke to The Associated Press in an exclusive interview in Baghdad on Friday, a day before traveling to Tunis to attend an annual Arab summit meeting.
Trump, making his first presidential visit to troops in a conflict zone, said he has no plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq.
Some 5,200 troops are stationed in Iraq as part of a security agreement with the Iraqi government to advise, assist and support the country's troops in the fight against the Islamic State.
ISIS overran large parts of Iraq in 2014 after Iraqi forces collapsed, and it proceeded to declare a self-styled caliphate over territory straddling Iraq and Syria.
U.S. forces, which had left Iraq in 2011 after invading in 2003, were invited back in 2014 to assist the fight against the group. Iraq declared victory over ISIS in late 2017 after a ruinous and bloody war.
"They are here for the specific mission of empowering and enabling Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS. Nothing else. That is the specific exclusive mission, and in that context, I do not see serious opposition to the presence of these forces in Iraq today," Salih said.
Salih’s comments stand in stark contrast with that of mostly Iran-backed deputies in the Iraqi Parliament, who say they are preparing draft laws calling for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops now that the war against ISIS is over.
An unannounced visit to Iraq by Trump in December, during which he failed to meet with the prime minister, as well as recent comments in which Trump said he wanted U.S. troops to remain in Iraq to “watch Iran,” have also provoked outrage in Baghdad and fueled the debate.
President Donald Trump reaffirmed his intention to withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, while adding that they will be shifted to Iraq, during an interview this weekend.
Salih said any mission beyond what has been agreed to by the Iraqi government "is a subject that many political leaders of the country would take objection to."
He said he recently led a conversation among all the major political groupings of the country, and there is "general consensus that Iraq needs that collaboration." A debate or vote is not scheduled in Parliament for the time being, he said.
While he said the territorial defeat of ISIS was hugely significant, Salih said remnants of the group were still operating and moving around in both Syria and Iraq.
"This threat is far from over. We really need — we in Iraq, Syria and the entire international community — to be vigilant and to make sure that we deal definitely with this threat of extremism," he said.
The Islamic State group has lost all the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, but its shadowy leader and self-proclaimed “caliph” is still at large.
Salih also said the international community should shoulder its responsibility in dealing with the thousands of ISIS detainees and their families currently being held in Syria and Iraq.
"There has to be a framework that will bring the international community together, both legally as well as in terms of the logistics and security ramifications of dealing with the numbers of ISIS detainees," he said.
Iraqi detention centers and courts are already overwhelmed with ISIS suspects, and the country has recently begun repatriating ISIS militants detained in Syria. They include 13 French nationals who will be put on trial for crimes committed inside Iraq.
Salih said that although he is personally opposed to capital punishment, he would abide by the Iraqi laws and the constitution if the French nationals were to be handed the death sentence.
In the interview, Salih added that Iraq is advocating the readmittance of Syria back into the Arab League, and he said he hoped that the remaining Arab countries would work together toward that goal.
Syria's membership was suspended in 2011 in the early days of the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
While some Arab leaders think Syria — a founding member — should be readmitted, others like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have spent years supporting the insurgency.
"We better embrace Syria, and hope Syria overcomes the difficulties it has been facing. Simply isolating Syria is not the way to move forward," Salih said. He rejected Trump's decision this week to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed in 1982, saying the decision is not conducive to peace and security in the Middle East.
The Iraqi president also called for the withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Iraq, adding that their continued presence was an obstacle to the development of relations between the two countries.