Iraq’s President Barham Salih gave an exclusive interview to Axios on HBO in which the close U.S. ally questioned the “dependability” of the U.S. and discussed what it would take for Iraq to turn to Russia as a power broker in the Middle East.
"The staying power of the United States is being questioned in a very, very serious way," Salih said. "And allies of the United States are worried about the dependability of the United States."
Salih said that the "implications are huge" for the U.S. withdrawal from Syria as the "Turkey invasion" unleashes a new dynamic that is "truly dangerous."
Salih spoke about the threats facing Syria's Kurds: "I'm worried about ethnic cleansing. And this has been the history, tragic history of the Kurdish people and this [is] dangerous and tragic. The humanitarian cost is just awful."
"Of course, many actors in this neighborhood," Salih said. "I'm not one of those, again, who goes and [says] to the Americans or the Russians, 'if you are not doing this for me, I'm gonna go the other way round.' [But] we need to think of our own priorities, and I've been very clear about it."
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When asked about a potential conflict between the U.S. and Iran, Salih said it would be a “disaster for everybody.” Iraq is one of the few countries in the region with ties to both the U.S. and Iran. Qatar has a similar relationship. Salih said he considers both countries to be Iraq's allies and he said he would not pick a side in a conflict between the two.
"The United States is an important ally, partner. … We want this to continue and we definitely don't want our territory to be used," he said. "We should try and stop it because Iraq cannot sustain it, cannot survive it."
Iraq and the U.S. have been at odds recent days about U.S. troops withdrawing from northeastern Syria to Iraq. Iraq has said that U.S. troops are only “transiting” and will leave the country within four weeks, Iraq’s defense minister said Wednesday.
Najah al-Shammari made the remarks to The Associated Press following a meeting in Baghdad with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who arrived as Iraqi leaders chafed over reports the U.S. may want to increase the number of troops based in Iraq, at least temporarily.
Iraq’s military said Tuesday that American troops leaving northeastern Syria don’t have permission to stay in Iraq in a statement that appeared to contradict Esper, who has said that all U.S. troops leaving Syria would continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State group from Iraq to prevent its resurgence in the region.
He later added that the troops would be there temporarily until they are able to go home, but no time period has been set.
Esper said earlier on Wednesday that the U.S. has no plans to leave those troops in Iraq “interminably” and that he plans to talk with Iraqi leaders about the matter.
Al-Shammari said Esper traveled to Iraq based on an invitation from the Iraqis. In Wednesday’s talks, he said the two sides agreed that the American troops crossing from Syria are “transiting” through Iraq and will then head to either Kuwait, Qatar or the United States “within a time frame not exceeding four weeks.”
The Iraqi minister said the planes that would transport the American troops out of Iraq have already arrived.