Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday defended the U.S. military's presence in Iraq shortly before the Middle Eastern nation's parliament voted to demand that foreign forces there withdraw following the death of an Iranian general in an American airstrike.
"As for the activity today with respect to Iraq, we've been in their country. We've been supporting Iraqi sovereignty. We've been continuing to take down the terrorist threat against the Iraqi people," Pompeo told "Fox News Sunday," just hours after lawmakers in Baghdad convened an emergency session.
Iraq has become embroiled in the escalating conflict between Washington and Tehran, with tensions reaching new heights last week after President Donald Trump ordered the elimination of Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran's elite paramilitary Quds Force. He was killed Jan. 3 in an overnight drone attack near Baghdad's international airport.
Iraq's Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi on Sunday criticized that strike as a "political assassination," according to The Washington Post, and urged parliament to take "urgent measures" to force the exit of American troops. Iraqi lawmakers later voted in favor of a resolution that calls for ending foreign military presence in the country.
Pompeo dismissed Abdul-Mahdi — who in November submitted his resignation to parliament amid mass anti-government protests — as the "acting prime minister," and charged that he was "under enormous threats from the very Iranian leadership that it is that we are pushing back against."
"We are confident that the Iraqi people want the United States to continue to be there to fight the counterterror campaign, and we'll continue to do all the things we need to do to keep America safe," Pompeo said.
Asked about a potential parliamentary request that U.S. forces depart Iraq, Pompeo said the administration would "have to take a look at what we do when the Iraqi leadership in government makes a decision."
But he added that "the American people should know we'll make the right decision," and will "take actions that frankly the previous administration refused to take to do just that."
Soon after Pompeo's appearance on Fox, the Iraqi parliament formally voted to expel American service members from the country, according to The Associated Press — approving a resolution aimed at forcing the U.S. to withdraw roughly 5,000 soldiers stationed across Iraq.
The State Department later issued a statement regretting the vote.
"The United States is disappointed by the action taken today in the Iraqi Council of Representatives," spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said. "While we await further clarification on the legal nature and impact of today's resolution, we strongly urge Iraqi leaders to reconsider the importance of the ongoing economic and security relationship between the two countries and the continued presence of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. We believe it is in the shared interests of the United States and Iraq to continue fighting ISIS together. This administration remains committed to a sovereign, stable, and prosperous Iraq."
Experts said that the measure was nonbinding, but that it was hugely consequential given the Iraqi prime minister's own call for U.S. and other foreign forces to leave. Still, there is no clear timetable as to when an exit would unfold, and other regional players — such as the Sunnis and the Kurds — might try to make the case for American troops to stay.
Another wild card is Trump himself, said Rob Malley, president of the International Crisis Group. The president has long said he would prefer to have fewer U.S. entanglements in the Middle East, and if he senses the Iraqis are "ungrateful," he might just opt for a quick withdrawal, Malley said.
But, speaking later Sunday on Air Force One, Trump made it clear he believes the Iraqis owe the United States something.
“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he said.
The president also said he expects the Iraqis to be polite, saying if they weren’t, “We will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
The vote by the Iraqi parliament was one of several significant developments on Sunday related to American foreign policy in the region and the rapidly deteriorating U.S.-Iran relationship.
A Defense Department official confirmed the deployment of an additional task force of special operations troops to the Middle East after a brigade of 4,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division had already been directed to Kuwait in the aftermath of Soleimani's death.
The Pentagon also suspended its fight against remaining elements of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as American troops refocused their efforts on protecting bases in Iraq from strikes by Iranian-backed militias.
And in Iran, state television reported that Tehran would no longer abide by any of the limits of the 2015 multinational nuclear deal, according to the The AP. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the pact in 2018.
Pompeo on Sunday also sought to justify the dearth of public evidence the administration has provided that led to the president's decision to direct the Soleimani strike, citing the need to protect U.S. intelligence-gathering operations.
"We will do everything we can to share this information with the American people. But I think the American people understand, too, there are certain things you just can't put out in public," he said. "You got to protect Americans who are out collecting the intelligence — the intelligence we will need in the days and weeks ahead to continue to defend and protect them."
Pompeo last week said Soleimani's killing disrupted an "imminent attack" that would have endangered as many as hundreds of American lives, and claimed the intelligence community had assessed that "the risk of doing nothing was enormous."
Although Democrats pushed back against that notion on Sunday, saying they had not seen sufficient details to support the administration's conclusion, Pompeo continued to insist that Soleimani's plotting in the days prior to his death posed an active threat.
The secretary remarked that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, "got it right when he said we were culpably negligent had we not gone after Soleimani when we had the opportunity."
"I think any reasonable person who saw the intelligence that the senior American leaders had in their possession would have come to the same conclusion that President Trump and our leadership team did about the fact that there would have been more risk to America — more risk through inaction than there was through the action that we took," Pompeo said.
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.