Iraqi Parliament Backs Government Push to End Foreign Troop Presence

By Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD, Jan 5 (Reuters) – Iraq’s parliament on Sunday backed a suggestion by the prime minister that all foreign troops should be ordered out after the United States killed a top Iranian military commander and an Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad.

A resolution passed by a special session of parliament said the Shi’ite-led government, which is close to Iran, should cancel its request for assistance from a U.S.-led coalition.

“Despite the internal and external difficulties that we might face, it remains best for Iraq on principle and practically,” said caretaker premier Adel Abdul Mahdi, who resigned in November amid street protests.

The special session was called after a U.S. drone strike on Friday at Baghdad airport killed Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani, architect of Iran‘s drive to extend its influence across the region, and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Since the killings, rival Shi’ite Muslim political leaders, including those opposed to Iranian influence, have united in calling for U.S. troops to be expelled, and Abdul Mahdi’s eventual successor is almost certain to take the same view.

However, one Sunni Muslim lawmaker said Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities fear that the expulsion of the U.S.-led coalition will leave Iraq vulnerable to an insurgency, undermine security, and further empower its Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias.

Most Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the special session of parliament, and the 168 lawmakers present were just three more than the quorum.

Lawmakers from the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, which the U.S. State Department said on Friday it would designate a foreign terrorist organisation, were carrying portraits of Soleimani and Muhandis.

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At various points, lawmakers broke into chants against the United States.

“There is no need for the presence of American forces after defeating Daesh (Islamic State),” Ammar al-Shibli, a Shi’ite lawmaker, said before the session.

“We have our own armed forces which are capable of protecting the country.”

Despite decades of enmity between Iran and the United States, Iranian-backed militias and U.S. troops fought on the same side during Iraq’s 2014-2017 war against Islamic State militants.

Around 5,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, most of them in an advisory capacity.

Hadi al-Amiri, the top candidate to succeed Muhandis, also called for U.S. troops to leave Iraq at a funeral procession for those killed in the attack.

Many Iraqis, including opponents of Soleimani, are angry with Washington for killing him and Muhandis on Iraqi soil, potentially dragging their country into another conflict.

In the oil city of Basra, dozens of protesters gathered near the West Qurna 1 oilfield, operated by U.S. major Exxon Mobil, to condemn the attack. One banner read: “‘No’ to the actions of a stupid Trump”.

Oil officials said operations were not affected.

Dozens of U.S. citizens working for foreign oil companies in Basra left the country on Friday after the U.S. Embassy urged all its citizens to leave Iraq immediately.

In the southern city of Nassiriya, at least one anti-government protester was killed and three were wounded when militia members carrying symbolic caskets for Soleimani and Muhandis tried to enter their protest camp and shots were fired, police and medical sources said.

In Basra, militia members and supporters also clashed with anti-government protesters and shots were fired, security sources said.

The protesters, like others across Iraq, have been demanding an overhaul of the entire political system since October.

Many of those demonstrators see the political elites as subservient to either the United States or Iran as both try to assert regional influence.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Ahmed Aboulenein and Maha El Dahan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)