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Iraq rejects long-term presence of U.S. troops withdrawing from Syria

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper meets Iraq's Defence Minister Najah al-Shammari at the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad, Iraq October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Idrees Ali

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq rejected on Wednesday the long-term presence of U.S. troops that have crossed its border during a retreat from northern Syria, an apparent snub to visiting Defence Secretary Mark Esper who had initially said the troops would stay in Iraq.

After meeting Esper, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi reiterated an earlier position that U.S. troops retreating from Syria would be permitted to pass through Iraq only for transit, and said no troops could stay in Iraq without permission.

In a statement, Abdul Mahdi said Iraq was “taking all international legal measures” to ensure the U.S. troops would leave as required. He did not elaborate.

Esper had initially told reporters troops withdrawing from Syria would go to western Iraq to fight Islamic State and “help defend Iraq,” but he appeared to row back on Tuesday, saying Washington aimed to eventually bring them home.

Esper also met on Wednesday his Iraqi counterpart Defence Minister Najah al-Shammari. They discussed military cooperation and “consulted over the military events the region is going through,” the Iraqi defence ministry said in a statement.

Iraq is one of the regional allies that has closely watched President Donald Trump’s decision to abruptly withdraw from northern Syria and withhold protection from Kurdish fighters that had helped U.S. troops fight against Islamic State.

Iraq hosts a separate force of around 5,000 troops that helped fight Islamic State. But it is also friendly with Washington’s enemy Iran.

U.S. troops occupied Iraq from 2003-2011 and are deeply unpopular in much of the country. Abdul Mahdi has faced a crisis over violent anti-corruption protests in recent weeks, leaving him with little political capital to spend defending U.S. ties.

“Iraqi politics are in a delicate state. There’s no Iraqi support for the country becoming a principal U.S. garrison in the Middle East,” said Jon Alterman, Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Reporting by Idrees Ali and Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Tom Hogue, Lincoln Feast and Peter Graff