An agreement to station U.S. military forces in Iraq was made with the Iraqi government, not its parliament, the U.S. said Thursday after Iraqi lawmakers called for American troops to be expelled.
James Jeffrey, President Donald Trump's special envoy to the anti-Daesh coalition, told reporters the U.S. has repeatedly said it is not interested in talking about the withdrawal of its forces, but "at the end of the day this is obviously an Iraqi decision on the future of the American and the coalition presence."
"We acknowledge that. We're not interested in sitting down and talking only about withdrawal," he said. "Any conversations that the Iraqis want to have with us about the United States in Iraq, we believe, should and must cover the entire gamut of our entire relationship, which goes way beyond our forces."
Iraqi lawmakers passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the government to expel troops earlier this month in response to the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.
But Jeffrey maintained the 2014 agreement that allows the U.S. to station forces in Iraq is not with the Iraqi Parliament, and is instead a government-to-government agreement "that the parliament was not directly or formally involved in, and that's the basis for us being there."
"Thus our partner in any discussions about our presence is the Iraqi government," he said.
Soleimani, the head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) elite Quds Force, was killed in a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad's international airport Jan. 3.
His death marked a dramatic escalation in tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which have often been at a fever pitch since Trump chose in 2018 to unilaterally withdraw Washington from a 2015 nuclear pact world powers struck with Tehran.
The Iraqi Parliament decided Jan. 5 to end the military presence of all foreign troops in the country, including the U.S.
On Jan. 10, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to demand the U.S. send a delegation to Iraq to establish a mechanism to withdraw its forces from Iraq.
The State Department responded, saying any delegation sent to Iraq "would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership – not to discuss troop withdrawal."
"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," spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.
Jeffrey also added that the U.S.-led coalition operations have been on pause in Iraq as the focus has been on force protection and talks with the Baghdad government on the way forward after Iraq's Parliament voted to expel foreign troops.
"We have not seen an uptick in violence in Iraq by Daesh in this period," Jeffrey told reporters at the State Department, adding officials will meet in Copenhagen on Wednesday to discuss the way forward in the U.S.-led operation against the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq.
"The coalition is very, very much committed to this mission," Jeffrey said.
Jeffrey acknowledged the pause in Iraq could hamper the fight against the Daesh if it continues.
"Over time, obviously there is a possibility of degradation of the effort against Daesh if we're not able to do the things that we were doing so effectively up until a few weeks ago," he said.
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