Analysts warn of heightened probability of conflict with Iran as ‘hardliners’ take control of Trump’s foreign policy.
In an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation programme, Trump highlighted the importance of a key military base in Iraq that he said was crucial to the surveillance of the Islamic Republic’s activities.
“We spent a fortune on building this incredible base, we might as well keep it,” he said in an apparent reference to Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq, which he visited during a trip to the country in December.
“And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem,” Trump said in the interview broadcast on Sunday.
“We were in many, many locations in the Middle East in huge difficulty. Every single one of them was caused by the number one terrorist nation in the world, which is Iran.”
When asked whether he planned to use US forces in Iraq to “strike” Iran, Trump responded: “No … all I want to do is be able to watch.”
Trump also indicated the US military installation would be useful for monitoring developments in the wider Middle East.
“It’s perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East, rather than pulling up … We’re going to keep watching and if there’s trouble, if somebody is looking to do nuclear weapons or other things, we’re going to know it before they do.”
The New York Times reported the US has been quietly negotiating with Iraq for weeks to allow US special forces and support troops now operating in Syria to shift to bases in Iraq and attack the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group from there.
That would allow military leaders to maintain pressure on the armed group even as officials follow Trump’s orders to withdraw some 2,000 troops from Syria.
Citing two US officials, the Times said on Sunday that senior US military officers recently visited several Iraqi bases, including Erbil and Al Asad Airbase, to determine if existing US operations there could be expanded with troops shifting in from Syria.
Trump’s comments to CBS could undermine those negotiations by inflaming fears among Iraqis that US military activity in Iraq was aimed at checking Iran, and not defeating ISIL, the Times said.
Trump, in the interview, also denounced intelligence failures on former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction” that led to the administration of former President George W Bush invading the country in March 2003.
“Being in Iraq was a mistake … one of the greatest mistakes going into the Middle East that our country has ever made,” he said.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, the US government launched a “global war on terrorism” beginning in Afghanistan, after the Taliban refused to hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Trump also criticised the war in Afghanistan in the CBS interview, noting the US was spending “more money than anybody’s ever spent in history” on a war, adding it’s “got to stop at some point”.
US and Taliban officials have said progress was made in peace talks in recent weeks, but it remains to be seen if the US’ longest war would soon come to an end.
“We’ve been there close to 19 years, and it’s time,” said Trump. “And we’ll see what happens with the Taliban. They want peace, they’re tired. Everybody’s tired.”