BAGHDAD - The U.S. rejected Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi's request to begin talks on the withdrawal of American troops, with the State Department saying it's open to discussing "force posture" in the country and the financial "partnership" between the two nations.
"Any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership - not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement Friday.
Abdul-Mahdi's demand during a Thursday phone call with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo is the latest sign of eroding ties between the countries after the U.S. killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad.
The drone strike on Qassem Soleimani, who oversaw Iran's foreign military operations, outraged Shiite politicians in Iraq, many of whom have close ties to Tehran. Their majority in parliament was enough to win a non-binding vote on expelling U.S. forces, though Sunni Arab and Kurdish legislators boycotted the session. If it happened, a U.S. pullout would bring an end to 17 years of American military presence in the Middle East nation following a 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
"His Excellency demanded that the U.S. Secretary of State send officials to Iraq to work out mechanisms to implement the decision of the parliament for the safe withdrawal of troops from Iraq," according to a statement from the Iraqi prime minister's office.
Pompeo told reporters at the White House Friday that Abdul-Mahdi "didn't quite characterize the conversation correctly." He said that "we are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is" but "we're going to continue that mission."
The U.S. statement on Friday said talks are underway with representatives of NATO about increasing the alliance's role in Iraq, "in line with the President's desire for burden sharing in all of our collective defense efforts." But it also carried the hint of a threat.
"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," according to the statement.
President Donald Trump responded angrily to the parliament vote, threatening to sanction Iraq and demanding reimbursement for investments made in the country over the past two decades if the government insists on U.S. forces leaving.
After Iran on Wednesday fired a salvo of missiles at Iraqi bases where U.S. troops are stationed in retaliation for Soleimani's killing, both sides seemed to step back from the brink of open conflict. No Americans were injured in the missile barrage and Trump called Thursday for Iranian leaders to negotiate.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter that the missile attack "concluded" Iran's retaliation for Soleimani's killing. Even if Tehran refrains from further direct attacks, though, it might seek reprisals through more covert means, such as attacks by proxy militias or in cyberspace.
Pentagon chief Mark Esper said early this week that he believes the Iraqi people and lawmakers still want the U.S. to maintain a presence in the country, though Abdul-Mahdi's statement would appear to contradict that position. U.S. forces in the country have increasingly focused on the fight against Islamic State, a battle in which they were at least nominally aligned with Shiite Iran's interests.
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran soared after Trump in 2018 withdrew from the nuclear accord negotiated by his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and reimposed sanctions that have crushed the Islamic Republic's economy.
Iran has responded by withdrawing from the nuclear deal in phases, while its proxy forces in Yemen, Iraq and Syria are seen as having been behind attacks on a range of targets including critical oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the region.
Trump ordered Soleimani killed after a Dec. 27 rocket attack on a joint U.S.-Iraqi base near Kirkuk resulted in the death of an American contractor. The U.S. blamed the attack on an Iran-backed militia and killed its leader in the same strike that targeted Soleimani.
The assassinations are the latest test for a nation that has seen almost nonstop upheaval since the U.S. invasion.
Iraqis fed up with corruption and the slow pace of recovery from the wreckage left by the war with Islamic State took to the streets in October for protests that also targeted Iran's dominance of the country's politics.
Iraq's top Shiite cleric on Friday denounced the "repeated violations" of the country's sovereignty and the government's inability to deter attacks.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said that no outside power should 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, he said, according to his representative, Ahmed Al-Safi.
(Al-Ansary reported from Baghdad, Wadhams from Washington. Jennifer Jacobs and Jordan Fabian contributed to this report.)
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