Trump wants US military in Iraq to 'watch Iran'

Trump delivers remarks to US troops in an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, in December 2018.
Trump delivers remarks to US troops in an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, in December 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - United States President Donald Trump has said it was important for the US to keep a military presence in Iraq so that Washington can keep a close eye on its neighbour Iran. 

The Republican president lamented "endless wars" in Syria and Afghanistan in an interview with CBS' Face The Nation that aired on Sunday (Feb 3) and made clear he wants to reduce the costly US military presence in those countries despite warnings against such moves from his military advisers and spy chiefs. 

The US could rely heavily on intelligence work in Afghanistan, he said, and respond to developments in Syria from US bases in neighbouring Iraq.

Iran's Revolutionary Guards have sent weapons and thousands of soldiers to Syria to help shore up the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a seven-year civil war there.

Trump said the US has spent a "fortune" on the Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq, which he visited in December, and that the US should hold on to it.

"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,"he said in the CBS interview.

Asked if that meant he wanted to be able to strike against Iran, Trump said, "No, because I want to be able to watch Iran. All I want to do is be able to watch."

Reacting to Trump's comments, Iraqi President Barham Salih said on Monday that the US president had not sought Iraq’s permission for the US troops stationed there to “watch Iran.” 

“Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues,” Salih said at a forum in Baghdad. “The US is a major power ... but do not pursue your own policy priorities, we live here.”  

US troops in Iraq are there as part of an agreement between the two countries with a specific mission of combating terrorism, Salih said, and that they should stick to that.

“It is of fundamental interest for Iraq to have good relations with Iran” and other neighbouring countries, Salih said. 

Iraq is in a difficult position as tensions between its two biggest allies, the US and Iran, increase. 

In the interview, Trump also defended his decision in December to withdraw troops from Syria but refused to provide a timetable for the pullout, which drew criticism from members of his own Republican Party and concerns among some allies.

In a rebuke, the Republican-led US Senate advanced largely symbolic legislation on Thursday opposing plans for any abrupt withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

Trump initially said the withdrawal from Syria should be immediate but he has since said it would be gradual.

Some of the forces moving out of Syria will go to Iraq, where they can monitor any resurgence of ISIS or other militant groups and "ultimately some will be coming home," Trump said.

He said US forces could be deployed again if there is a resurgence of militant groups like Al-Qaeda. "We'll come back if we have to," he said.

Trump said on Thursday he would bring US troops home if a peace deal was reached to end 17 years of war in Afghanistan.

He told CBS he would be open to keeping a small number of troops there as well as intelligence operations to monitor for "nests" of militant activity, according to the interview taped on Friday.

Trump did not say whether he trusted Afghanistan's Taleban insurgent group but said he believed they want peace.

"They're tired. Everybody's tired," Trump said. "I don't like endless wars."