Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has said United States troops pulling out of northeast Syria do not have permission to stay in Iraq, adding that his government is taking “all international legal measures” in response to their recent entry.
The Iraqi leader made the comments in a statement reaffirming Baghdad’s position shortly after meeting US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who arrived in the country on Wednesday in an unannounced visit.
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Abdul Mahdi said the government “has not granted permission for US forces withdrawing from Syrian territory to remain in Iraqi territory”.
“We have [already] issued an official statement saying that and are taking all international legal measures. We ask the international community and the United Nations to perform their roles in this matter,” he said.
His comments came a day after US and Iraqi officials offered apparently conflicting accounts of the fate of the US troops in the region, who have been leaving Syria as part of a withdrawal announced by President Donald Trump earlier this month.
The Iraqi military said on Tuesday that the US forces do not have permission to stay in Iraq, in a response to Esper’s previous comments that the approximately 700 troops leaving Syria would continue operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group from Iraq to prevent its resurgence in the region.
The US already has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq under an agreement between Washington and Baghdad forged when ISIL began taking large portions of the country in 2014.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Baghdad, said Baghdad’s reaction appeared to have stemmed from “the language that the US used”.
“The US said that the forces will come back to Ain al-Assad in western Iraq and mount operations against ISIL from there – and that seems to have angered the Iraqis,” Khan said.
After meeting Esper earlier on Wednesday, Iraq‘s Defence Minister Najah al-Shammari said US forces withdrawing from Syria into neighbouring Iraq would depart the country within four weeks.
Shammari told The Associated Press news agency that the US troops were “transiting” in Iraq and would then head either to Kuwait or Qatar, or back to the US.
Esper said on Tuesday that Washington planned to eventually bring US troops withdrawing from Syria back home. He did not provide any timelines.
He added on Wednesday that the US had no plans to leave troops in Iraq “interminably”.
Critics have charged that the US withdrawal from Syria effectively deserted the Kurdish-spearheaded Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Washington’s main ally in the war against ISIL.
The move cleared the way for Turkey to launch a cross-border military operation against the SDF, which is led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), in the northeast region of the country. Ankara considers the YPG a “terrorist organisation”.