BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq's parliament called on Sunday for U.S. and other foreign military forces to leave amid a growing backlash against the U.S. killing of a top Iranian military commander that has heightened fears of a wider Middle East conflict.
In a war of words between Iran and the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would target any Iranian decision-makers it chose if there were further attacks on U.S. interests by Iranian forces or their proxies.
Qassem Soleimani was killed on Friday in a U.S. drone strike on his convoy at Baghdad airport, an attack that took U.S.-Iranian hostilities into uncharted waters and stoked concern about a major conflagration.
As Washington and Tehran, longtime foes, assailed each other with threats and counter-threats, the European Union, Britain and Oman urged them to make diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis.
The Iraqi parliament passed a resolution calling on the government to work to end all foreign troop presence, reflecting the concern of many in Iraq that the strike could engulf them in a major war between two bigger powers long at odds in Iraq and across the region.
“The Iraqi government must work to end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, air space or water for any reason,” it said.
Parliamentary resolutions, unlike laws, are non-binding to the government. But this one is likely to be heeded: Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who heads a Shi'ite-led government, had earlier called on parliament to end foreign troop presence as soon as possible.
Despite decades of enmity between Iran and the United States, Iranian-backed militia and U.S. troops fought side by side during Iraq's 2014-17 war against Islamic State militants, their common enemy. Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed in Friday's strike.
Some 5,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, most in an advisory role.
The resolution was passed by overwhelmingly Shi'ite lawmakers, as the special session was boycotted by most Sunni Muslim and Kurdish lawmakers.
One Sunni member of parliament told Reuters that both groups feared that kicking out U.S.-led coalition forces would leave Iraq vulnerable to an insurgency, undermine security and heighten the power of Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias.
'TERRORIST IN A SUIT'
Earlier on Sunday, Iran lambasted Donald Trump after the U.S. president threatened to hit 52 Iranian sites hard if Tehran attacks Americans or U.S. assets in retaliation for Soleimani's death.
“Like ISIS, Like Hitler, Like Genghis! They all hate cultures. Trump is a terrorist in a suit. He will learn history very soon that NOBODY can defeat 'the Great Iranian Nation & Culture',” Information and Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi tweeted.
Soleimani masterminded Iran's clandestine and military operations abroad as head of the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, creating an arc of Shi'ite power with the help of proxy militias confronting the regional might of United States and Israel.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised on Friday that Iran would seek harsh revenge for his death.
Hundreds of thousands of mourners, many chanting, beating their chests and wailing in grief, turned out across Iran to show their respects after Soleimani's body was returned home to a hero's welcome.
Pompeo rejected suggestions that the intelligence assessment that led to the strike on Soleimani was thin and said there was no doubt Iran had absorbed the message from Washington.
“The intelligence assessment made clear that no action – allowing Soleimani to continue his plotting and his planning, his terror campaign – created more risk than taking the action that we took last week,” he said on ABC's “This Week” show.
Democratic critics of the Republican president have called the strike that Trump authorized reckless, saying it risked more bloodshed in a dangerous region.
The top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, said on ABC's “This Week”: “We do not need this president either bumbling or impulsively getting us into a major war.”
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon's powerful, Iran-allied Hezbollah movement, said the U.S. military in the Middle East would pay the price for Soleimani'S death and U.S. soldiers and officers would return home in coffins.
Hezbollah has had numerous conflicts with U.S. ally Israel, including a month-long war in 2006.
Heightened fears of war drove Gulf stocks sharply lower on Sunday.
Trump tweeted on Saturday that Iran “is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets”.
He said the United States has “targeted 52 Iranian sites”, some “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD”.
In remarks to Fox News on Sunday, Pompeo said Trump had not threatened to target Iranian cultural sites.
Iran summoned the Swiss envoy representing U.S. interests in Tehran on Sunday to protest at “Trump's hostile remarks”, according to Iranian state television.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell urged Iran's foreign minister by phone to work to de-escalate the situation and invited him to Brussels to discuss ways of preserving world powers' 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
It was Trump's withdrawal of the United States from the deal in 2018 and reimposition of sanctions on Iran that touched off a new spiral of tensions after a brief thaw following the accord.
Iran will decide on Sunday about its next step to further roll back its commitments to the nuclear containment deal, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted as saying.
“Considering the recent threats (by America) it should be underlined that in politics, all developments and threats are linked to each other,” state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying.
(Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan in London, Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Francesco Guarascio in Brussels, Tom Perry in Beirut, Daphne Psaledakis and Doina Chiacu in Washington, Ateeq Shariff in Bengaluru; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Frances Kerry)