US urges Iraq PM-designate to protect its troops ahead of vote


Washington (AFP)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday urged Iraq's designated prime minister to protect US troops and meet grievances of a months-long protest movement ahead of a parliamentary confidence vote.

In the first substantive US comment on Mohammad Allawi since he was named on February 1 as a consensus candidate, Pompeo said he told him by telephone that the United States backed a "strong, sovereign and prosperous" Iraq.

Pompeo "stressed Iraq's obligation to protect US and coalition diplomats, forces and facilities," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

Pompeo spoke to Allawi about "the urgency with which Iraq's next government must put an end to the killing of protesters, seek justice for those killed and wounded, and address their legitimate grievances," she said.

Allawi has called a vote of confidence in parliament on Monday ahead of a deadline, after earlier skepticism that he could form and win approval for a government.

The United States last month outraged Iraqi leaders by carrying out a drone stroke at Baghdad's airport that killed a top general from neighboring Iran, Qassem Soleimani.

Tensions had soared after Iranian-linked Iraqi Shiite militias fired rockets on bases that are home to US bases, with fresh attacks reported in recent weeks.

US leaders scoffed at the Iraqi objections to the killing of Soleimani on its soil, with President Donald Trump threatening economic sanctions if Baghdad evicted the 5,200 troops in the country, which was thrown into chaos by the 2003 US invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Pompeo refused a request by the outgoing prime minister, Adel Abdel Mahdi, to send a delegation to discuss a troop withdrawal and said publicly that many Iraqi leaders privately wanted US forces to stay.

Abdel Mahdi stepped down in December in the face of the unprecedented anti-government protests demanding an end to corruption, an independent prime minister and a total government overhaul.

But protesters have slammed the choice of Allawi as his successor, saying the two-time former communications minister is too close to the elite they have railed against for months.

The Iraqi prime minister's office described the conversation with Pompeo as a congratulatory call. The State Department did not explicitly offer congratulations but described Allawi as the "new prime minister."