Middle East

‘Even one American in Iraq is too much,’ Iran’s leader tells Iraqi president

By Mitchell McCluskey and Aqeel Mohamed

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decried the presence of the US military in Iraq during a meeting with Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid in Tehran on Saturday.

“The presence of even one American in Iraq is too much,” Khamenei said, Iranian state media outlet IRNA reported.

“Americans are not friends with anyone and are not even loyal to their European allies,” Khamenei said, as he called for Iran and Iraq to expand “bilateral cooperation.”

Khamenei’s comments follow US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s unannounced trip to Baghdad last month, when Austin said US troops were “ready to remain in Iraq.”

Iraqi President Rashid, in a statement after his meeting with Khamenei, underscored the importance of Iraq-Iran relations but did not respond to his comments on the presence of Americans in Iraq.

Austin, who in March became the highest-ranking Cabinet official to visit Iraq since the start of the Biden administration, had said he was in the country to “reaffirm the US-Iraq strategic partnership as we move toward a more secure, stable and sovereign Iraq.”

His visit came days before the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein from power.

“Now looking forward, US forces are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq,” Austin said. “And these forces are operating in a non combat, advise, assist and enable role to support the Iraqi-led fight against terrorism. This is a critical mission. And we’re proud to support our Iraqi partners.”

Iraq is an important partner to the US in the campaign to defeat ISIS. But unlike in Syria, where US forces operated alongside Syrian Democratic Forces and other partners, the US military serves in an advise-and-assist role in Iraq, having officially ended the combat mission in Iraq in 2021.

“The United States will continue to strengthen and broaden our partnerships in support of Iraqi security, stability and sovereignty,” Austin said during his Baghdad visit.

Growing tensions

Iraq plays a crucial role for the United States in containing Iran’s influence in the region. Iran has tried to exert control over Iraq through the use of proxy forces and Tehran’s sway with Shia political parties in Baghdad.

Tensions between the United States and Iran are also growing over Tehran’s actions in Syria.

US President Joe Biden last month vowed the US would “forcefully protect our people” as Iranian-backed groups launched attacks on US troops in Syria.

His comments came a day after approving retaliatory airstrikes in response to a drone attack by an Iranian-backed group in Syria that left one American dead and more injured. Shortly before the president spoke, another American service member was injured in a separate strike in Syria.

“Make no mistake: the United States does not – does not – seek conflict with Iran. But be prepared for us to forcefully protect our people,” Biden had said during remarks in Canada, where he was on a two-day visit.

The US has also sanctioned Tehran for providing attack drones to Russia to use in the war in Ukraine.

And it has raised concerns that Iran has the potential to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks and manufacture one within months.

Additional reporting by Michael Callahan, Colin McCullough, Oren Liebermann, Natasha Bertrand and Haley Britzky

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