Iraq’s Caretaker Prime Minister Leaves Decision Whether to Expel U.S. Troops to Successor

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister

      Adel Abdul-Mahdi

       indicated he would leave a decision whether to expel U.S. forces from the country to his successor, potentially slowing a push that could trigger American military-aid cuts and sanctions.

The targeted killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and a top Iraqi paramilitary commander by the U.S. this month brought the status of U.S. troops in Iraq to the top of the country’s political agenda. It led Parliament, which is dominated by Shiite factions, some aligned with Iran, to vote in favor of expelling them.

The fallout has eclipsed negotiations over a replacement for Mr. Abdul-Mahdi and the continuing antigovernment protests that led to his resignation nearly two months ago. A constitutional deadline to choose a new candidate for prime minister passed in December.

In a cabinet meeting, Mr. Abdul-Mahdi urged the president, speaker of Parliament and political blocs to nominate a candidate for his position and form a new government to resolve the status of U.S. troops.

“These complex conditions are difficult, particularly after the resolution of the Parliament for the withdrawal of forces and … this all requires a government of full authorities so the country can take a step forward,” Mr. Abdul-Mahdi said. The cabinet meeting was held on Tuesday but aired on Wednesday.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi at funeral of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards.

Photo:

thaier al-sudani / Reuters

The U.S. has rebuffed calls by Mr. Abdul-Mahdi to send delegates to make preparations for a withdrawal, questioning his authority as a caretaker and the legitimacy of Parliament’s resolution, which many Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers oppose.

The Trump administration has warned of financial penalties if Iraq moves to expel the roughly 5,300 U.S. forces on its soil.

Some of the U.S. military’s joint operations with Iraq resumed on Wednesday, a defense official said. They were suspended after the U.S. killing of Gen. Soleimani.

U.S. officials informed the Iraqi government last week that the country’s access to its central bank account at the New York Federal Reserve could be denied if American troops are kicked out. The Trump administration is also preparing possible cuts of $ 250 million in military aid to Iraq, funds already approved by Congress, if the government expels U.S. troops.

U.S. troops returned to Iraq in 2014 to help fight Islamic State but stayed on after the group’s military defeat to ensure it doesn’t re-emerge. Their continued presence, however, became an increasingly heated political issue as Iraq found itself at the center of increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

Calls to oust American forces grew louder after the U.S. conducted strikes on an Iran-backed militia it blamed for rocket attacks that culminated in the killing of an American contractor in December. Some 27 members of the Kataib Hezbollah militia were killed in the strikes, and supporters of the group then attempted to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The anti-American backlash against the U.S. has unified Iraq’s fractious Shiite political factions around a common goal.

Kurdish and most Sunni lawmakers boycotted the Parliament session to vote on the expulsion of U.S. troops, but a nonbinding resolution passed anyway with the backing of a majority of Shiite lawmakers. That unity may make it easier to choose a new prime minister with a commitment to terminating the U.S. troop presence.

Candidates put forward by the pro-Iranian Bina bloc previously were repeatedly blocked by populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who controls the largest number of seats in Parliament.

Mr. Sadr met this week with leaders of Iran-backed factions in Iran and discussed coordinating their efforts to end the U.S. troop presence.

The new candidate is unlikely to satisfy the demands of protesters who want an overhaul of the entire political system and an end to foreign meddling in the country’s affairs. Nearly 500 people have been killed in the state’s violent response to the protests that began in October.

Write to Isabel Coles at [email protected]

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