United States Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan arrived in Baghdad early Tuesday for an unannounced visit to Iraqi leaders to discuss the presence of US troops in the country and the fight against the remnants of the Islamic state.
Mr. Shanahan's trip coincides with plans to withdraw American forces from Syria and ask if any of these forces could be stationed in Iraq instead, which would serve as the basis for operations in Syria.
His search was complicated – or perhaps necessary – by an interview given by President Trump earlier this month. He suggested that American troops be sent to Iraq to keep an eye on neighboring Iran, a friendly Shiite state.
Since then, Iraqi politicians, many of whom are sympathetic to the Iranians, have thrown their arms and said that a foreign government has no right to use Iraqi territory to attack a neighboring state.
The Pentagon said in a statement aimed at reassuring concern over Mr. Trump's statements on Iran that Shanahan and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi had affirmed the "growing bilateral security relationship" between their countries and pointed out that " Partnership based on defeating ISIS ".
There are still around 2,000 American troops in Syria, many of which are special units to fight Islamic State fighters alongside Syrian Kurdish soldiers. They have drastically broken the territory of the Islamic State, except for one or two bags of militants in the Far East of Syria. But Mr. Trump has ordered the troops to abandon the battles to other players, including the Syrian army, the Russians who are fighting with them, and the Turks.
The military has defied order because they say that the Islamic State is still a threat and that a withdrawal would now mean giving up the Syrian Kurds, who in many cases have armed, trained and fought Americans side by side.
Turkey considers the Syrian Kurds, the Syrian Democratic Forces, as the PKK's military arm, a banned Kurdish terrorist group, in Ankara. The Turks have done little to hide their intention to expel them from the Turkish border and possibly entirely from Syria.
When he left Washington, Shanahan did not say whether he would ask Iraq to host some of the special forces now fighting in Syria. However, this possibility has been discussed in military circles in both Baghdad and Washington. From there, they could theoretically help settle the Islamic state and aid the Syrian Kurdish forces.
There are currently about 5,200 American troops in Iraq, primarily involved in training the Iraqi military, sometimes helping Iraqi troops by providing intelligence and air support in the fight against Islamic state fighters in Iraq. Although the number of attacks by the Islamic State in Iraq has fallen dramatically, there are at least one or two every day.
Among several competing ideas for United States Armed Forces coming to Syria from Syria, commanders seem to prefer having several hundred special forces near the Syrian border for easy access to Syria.
However, this was complicated by Mr. Trump's statement that he wanted to keep the American forces in Iraq in order to keep an eye on Iran.
In response to the president's comments, Iraqi politicians sped up the discussion on a law that would severely restrict the number of American troops allowed, their activities, and the length of their stay.
The antagonism is hardly surprising, since Iran has actively engaged in Iraq and addressed a number of questions to Shiite and Sunni Muslims. The Iranians are anxious to prevent the United States troop presence in Iraq from increasing or more US troops being stationed near their border. At present, only a few small contingents of Americans are active in Eastern Iraq, where they help the Iraqi army to fight the resistance of the Islamic State.
Until Mr. Trump visited Al Asad Air Base in December and highlighted the American presence in the country. The American military had withdrawn and worked closely with the Iraqi army against the Islamic State. Mr Trump's visit, which was not a meeting with Iraqi politicians, even though he spoke to the Prime Minister by phone, angered the Iraqis, who found his attitude presumptuous.