ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — US acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan underscored respect for Iraq’s sovereignty in a visit to Baghdad on Tuesday.
“Secretary Shanahan reaffirmed the US commitment to an independent, sovereign Iraq that is capable of defending itself,” his office stated in a read out of the secretary’s meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
The US relationship with Iraq is on shaky ground after a couple of gaffes by US President Donald Trump.
In December, Trump upset lawmakers in Baghdad when he didn’t meet any Iraqi officials during his quick visit to US troops stationed in the country. He raised ire again this month when he said he wanted US forces in Iraq to “watch Iran,” in violation of Washington’s security agreement with Baghdad and the Iraqi constitution.
Iraqi lawmakers subsequently renewed their calls for US soldiers to leave the country.
Abdul-Mahdi told Shanahan that Iraqi wants to maintain its relationship with the United States, but “fundamental agreements need to be heeded,” according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.
That agreement is “fighting terror, training Iraqi forces, and nothing else,” he said.
He dismissed the notion that his government is influenced by Iran, saying Iraqi makes its decisions independently and builds regional relationships “that serve the interests of Iraqis and bolster the chances of development and stability for the peoples of the region.”
Shanahan is on a tour of the Middle East, also visiting NATO trainers and military officials in Afghanistan.
"What's important to remind everyone ... or maybe just to reiterate is that we are in Iraq at the invitation of the government, and our interests are to build Iraqi security capability," he told reporters traveling with him ahead of his meeting with Abdul-Mahdi, according to Voice of America.
Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan (centre left) met with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi (centre right) in Baghdad on February 12, 2019. Photo: PM Office
President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw all US forces from Iraq in December. Washington has denied that pulling forces from Syria will result in a troop increase in Iraq. Officially, the United States has about 2,000 forces deployed in Syria and 5,000 in Iraq.
"I wanted to hear firsthand from them about their concerns, the political dynamics that they're facing and then, based on that, we'll obviously factor that into our planning," added Shanahan.
His meeting with Abdul-Mahdi was to “recognize the United States’ and Iraq’s growing bilateral security relationship,” one that is focused on defeating ISIS and developing the skills of the Iraqi forces, read the Department of Defense statement.
Shanahan replaced James Mattis as defense secretary in December as Mattis announced his intention to retire this month.
The early retirement was seen in Washington as an affront to Trump's chaotic foreign policy announcements.
ISIS is defending kilometers of its so-called caliphate east of the Euphrates near the Iraqi border in Syria. A declaration of their defeat in Syria is imminent. Iraq declared ISIS defeated in December 2017.
Updated at 10:21 pm