January 7, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8475

Iraqi Caretaker Prime Minister Counters Mark Esper's Remarks: 'Letter Notifying Of The U.S. Withdrawal Is Formal And Considered Official Notice And Iraq Will Abide By It'

January 7, 2020
Iran, Iraq | Special Dispatch No. 8475

In a cabinet meeting held on January 7, 2020, the Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi told his cabinet that the United States does not see the Iraqi government as equal and is therefore willing to violate Iraq's sovereignty.

The televised cabinet meeting[1] comes in the aftermath of conflicting news reports about a letter from U.S. Brig.-Gen. William Seely to the director of the Iraqi Joint Operations Task Force informing the Iraqi government that the U.S. would be "repositioning forces over the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement." The U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that there are no plans for U.S. troops to leave Iraq, adding that some forces are being "repositioned inside Iraq."

The Iraqi government provided another version of the story on January 6. Though it confirmed that it had received a letter from the U.S., it said the letter was not about repositioning of U.S. forces, but about withdrawal plans.

The Iraqi Account Of The Letter

In today's cabinet meeting, Abdul-Mahdi said his government "received yesterday a letter from the American leadership speaking about the withdrawal. When the letters arrived – at around eight o'clock, the Arabic translation of the letter contradicted the one in English. It was said that the letter was a mistake, however it clearly states a withdrawal from Iraq." He added that he immediately sent the letter to the Iraqi foreign minister and Iraqi ambassador in Washington and other parties.

Doubling down on his insistence that he got a letter saying that the U.S. forces are withdrawing, he noted that the Arabic translation that arrived with the letter did not match the English, saying: "It was meant to say troops will reposition in order to withdraw from the country." He assured his cabinet that it was an official letter signed by U.S. Brig.-Gen. William Seely. He explained that nearly four or five hours later he had received another Arabic translation that matches the English.


The Relationship Between Us [U.S. And Iraq] No Longer Appears To Be Between Equals"

Abdul-Mahdi acknowledged that there is a mistrust between the U.S and the Iraqi government that caused a confusion, adding: "The relationship between us [i.e., the U.S. and Iraq] no longer appears to be between equals."

He said that the U.S. did not provide evidence of who launched the attacks on its troops in Iraq, and therefore it is hard for him to defend their position in reference to the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

Referring to U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper's statement on the letter, Abdul-Mahdi said that the Iraqi government did not receive an official written notification from the U.S. to clarify the situation. "Good, you say it was a draft, but it is a draft that we received. We – as a state – how should we act? So, let another letter be sent to us to clarify the situation so we can explain to our people or clarify the picture to us also. Not through talk exchanged by the media," he said.

Abdul-Mahdi Seeks To Reestablish His Role As Prime Minister

Abdul-Mahdi, who was forced to resign by angry protesters on November 30, 2019, over corruption and Iran's growing influence in the country, tried in the January 7 cabinet meeting to reestablish his authority as premier, saying he has a responsibility to abide by the letter that indicated U.S. withdrawal.  

"My responsibility before my people, before you [cabinet members], before the Council of Representatives [i.e., parliament] means that we have to be clear about what we are talking about. But, if one time I take the talk seriously and, at another time, I say that the talk was a compliment, who can decide what the matter here is?"

On January 5, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, had dismissed Abdul-Mahdi's call for all foreign troops to leave, saying that the latter is only operating in a caretaker role.


[1], January 7, 2020.

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