WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday reassured coalition partners that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria was not “the end of America's fight” and called on them to help permanently defeat Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Pompeo — addressing foreign ministers and other senior officials from 79 countries that have worked alongside the United States in fighting the militant group in Syria and Iraq — said Islamic State remained a menace.
“The U.S. troops withdrawing from Syria is not the end of America's fight. The fight is one we will continue to wage alongside you,” Pompeo said in opening remarks at the State Department. “The drawdown in troops is essentially a tactical change, it is not a change in the mission. It simply represents a new stage in an old fight.”
“Our mission is unwavering, but we need your help to accomplish it, just as we've had over the past months and years,” Pompeo said. “To that end, we ask that our coalition partners seriously and rapidly consider requests that will enable our efforts to continue.
“Those requests are likely to come very soon,” he added, without elaborating.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a gathering of foreign ministers aligned toward the defeat of Islamic State at the State Department in Washington, U.S., February 6, 2019.
Warnings by Pompeo and others that Islamic State remained a dangerous threat fly in the face of President Donald Trump's December declaration that the militants had been defeated and the United States would withdraw its roughly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria.
The president's sudden decision shocked coalition partners, including an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias that has been among the most effective against Islamic State, and prompted the abrupt resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Wednesday's meeting was the first of senior coalition officials since Trump, who was scheduled to address delegates in the afternoon, announced U.S. troops would withdraw. Participants included foreign ministers from Turkey, France, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and Iraq.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed al-Hakim, speaking after Pompeo, called on countries to help expose Islamic State “sleeper cells” in Iraq and restore stability.
Pompeo said despite progress in fighting Islamic State in Iraq, the group retained a strong presence in that country and was trying to mount a clandestine insurgency.
“The coalition must continue to support the government of Iraq in its efforts to secure the liberated areas of that country,” Pompeo said. “Mr. Foreign Minister, we're with you,” he told Hakim.
Earlier this week, Trump said it was important to keep a U.S. military presence in Iraq so that Washington could keep a close eye on Iran, according to a CBS interview aired on Sunday.
However, Iraqi President Barham Salih said on Monday that Trump did not ask Iraq's permission for U.S. troops stationed there to “watch Iran.” The United States and Iran are Iraq's two biggest allies.
On Wednesday, Hakim, apparently responding to Trump's comment, called on countries to show full “respect for the territorial integrity of Iraq and for all operations to take place with the knowledge of Iraq, and in consultations with Iraqi security forces.”
Wednesday remarks echoed a warning on Tuesday from a top U.S. general, who said Islamic State would pose an enduring threat following the planned withdrawal.
Army General Joseph Votel, head of a U.S. military command that oversees troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan, said the militant group retained leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources that would fuel a menacing insurgency.
“We do have to keep pressure on this network. … They have the ability of coming back together if we don't,” Votel told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.