Iraq president warns against making Baghdad pick sides in US-Iran tensions

Barham Salih ignores militia warning and meets Trump at Davos

Davos (Switzerland) (AFP) - Iraq's president warned Wednesday against pushing the country to choose sides in escalating tensions between neighbouring Iran and the US, both allies of Baghdad.

Addressing world leaders at the World Economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, Barham Saleh said a recent parliamentary vote to oust foreign forces from Iraq should not be understood as a sign of "hostility".

Parliament held the vote two days after a US drone strike near Baghdad airport killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and prompted retaliatory strikes from Tehran on an Iraqi base hosting American and other foreign troops.

The Iraqi president said the vote was "not a sign of ingratitude or hostility," but a response to a violation of his country's sovereignty.

"The escalating tensions between Iran, the Gulf states, and the United States over the past month have reminded us that our aspirations remain subject to political disputes beyond our control and to unwelcome foreign interference," Saleh said.

"It is not in our interest to choose to ally with one side at the expense of others, as long as both respect our sovereignty and independence."

He added that "no country should seek to dictate to Iraq" the nature of its relationships.

Saleh also hinted that the tensions could derail a rare chance for progress in Iraq after decades of conflict, most recently against the Islamic State group.

"If our neighbours and allies remain at odds, our sovereignty is not respected and our lands are used as a battlefield, then we cannot hope to achieve our own change agenda," he said.

He condemned acts of violence against the months-long protests movement rocking Baghdad and Iraq's Shiite-majority south, which has left hundreds dead since October.

Saleh had earlier met with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the world summit, hosting a brief press conference but brushing off questions on parliament's vote.

A source from his office told AFP the leaders had discussed the US drone strike on Baghdad as well as the withdrawal of forces from Iraq.

Barham Salih ignores militia warning and meets Trump at Davos

Salih ignored threats from an Iran-backed Iraqi militia against meeting US President Donald Trump on Wednesday as the pair discussed support and American troop deployments.

Meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr Trump said his administration would make a decision about the future of American forces in Iraq soon.

Iraq’s parliament voted to expel US forces from the country earlier this month and outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi asked Washington to work out a road map for their exit.

The US has rejected the request and has made no move to pull out the more than 5,000 soldiers in Iraq working on training and support to counter ISIS.

“We’ve had good relationship [with Iraq] and down to the lowest number historically and we’ve been there quite a while,” Mr Trump said during a meeting with his Iraqi counterpart.

“We’ll make a determination soon,” he said.

The Iraqi parliament vote 

Retaliatory missile attacks by Iran.followed an American drone strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis earlier this month forced the Iraqi parliament to vote for the withdrawal of the US troops from the country

Iraqi politicians say the US strike that killed the two officials were an unacceptable breach of Iraqi sovereignty.

Before the planned meeting, an Iraqi militia group threatened Mr Saleh, warning him not to sit down with Mr Trump.

Kataib Hezbollah, designated a terrorist group by the US, said that it would prevent Mr Salih from returning home if he meets his US counterpart.

“We stress the need for Barham Salih to not meet Trump and his vicious mob. If he meets with them then Iraqis will take a stand against him,” Abu Ali Al Askari, a high-ranking security official in Kataib Hezbollah, said on Twitter.

Kataib Hezbollah is an Iran-backed militia group that operates in Iraq.

“We will tell him that you are not welcome back and the public will oust him from the country,” Mr Al Askari said.— ابو علي العسكري (@abualiaalaskry) January 21, 2020

Mr Trump also met the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government Nechirvan Barzani in the Swiss town.

Mr Salih addressed the forum on Wednesday where he warned against making Baghdad pick sides in US-Iran tensions in the Gulf region.

Iraqi President and US President in Davos
Iraqi politician Hassan Salem, from the parliamentary bloc Sadikun that represents the political front of the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl Al Haq militia, also called on Mr Salih to forgo the meeting with the US president.

"We call on the president to refuse a meeting with Trump or any other American official at Davos in retaliation for the blood of martyrs and Iraq's sovereignty," Mr Salem said.

Tensions escalated between the US and Iran after an attack on the US embassy in Baghdad by supporters of Kataib Hezbollah in December.

It was in response to a US air strike that killed 25 members of the group.

Washington then launched a rocket attack that killed General Suleimani on January 3 and Mr Al Muhandis near Baghdad airport.

The Iranian general was key to the support and co-ordination of Tehran's proxies in the region, especially in Iraq.

Iran retaliated by launching dozens of missiles at two Iraqi bases hosting US forces. No causalities were reported except 11 troops reportedly under medicare in Germany.

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