Iraq's caretaker prime minister asked Washington to work out a road map for an American troop withdrawal, but the U.S. State Department on Friday bluntly rejected the request, saying the two sides should instead talk about how to "recommit" to their partnership.
Thousands of anti-government protesters turned out in the capital and southern Iraq, many calling on both Iran and America to leave Iraq, reflecting their anger and frustration over the two rivals — both allies of Baghdad — trading blows on Iraqi soil.
The request from Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi pointed to his determination to push ahead with demands for U.S. troops to leave Iraq, stoked by the American drone strike on Jan. 3 that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. In a phone call Thursday night, he told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that recent U.S. actions were unacceptable breaches of Iraqi sovereignty and a violation of their security agreements, his office said.
He asked Pompeo to "send delegates to Iraq to prepare a mechanism" to carry out the Iraqi Parliament's resolution on withdrawing foreign troops, according to the statement.
"The prime minister said American forces had entered Iraq and drones are flying in its airspace without permission from Iraqi authorities, and this was a violation of the bilateral agreements," the statement added.
Abdul-Mahdi signaled he was standing by the push for U.S. forces to leave despite signs of de-escalation by Tehran and Washington after Iran retaliated for Soleimani's death by firing missiles that hit two Iraqi bases where American troops are based but caused no casualties.
Iraqis feel furious and helpless at being caught in the middle of the fighting. Abdul-Mahdi has said he rejects all violations of Iraqi sovereignty, including both the Iranian and U.S. strikes.
The State Department flatly dismissed Abdul-Mahdi's request, saying U.S. troops are crucial for the fight against the Islamic State group and it would not discuss removing them.
Pompeo indicated Friday the troops would remain, adding that the U.S. would continue its mission to help train Iraqi security forces and counter the Islamic State group.
"We are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is," Pompeo said at the White House during an unrelated appearance.
"Our mission set there is very clear. We've been there to perform a training mission to help the Iraqi security forces be successful and to continue the campaign against ISIS, to continue the counter-Daesh campaign," he said, using alternate acronyms for the militant group.
"We're going to continue that mission but, as times change and we get to a place where we can deliver upon what I believe and what the president believes is our right structure with fewer resources dedicated to that mission, we will do so," Pompeo said.
He said a NATO team was at the State Department working on a plan "to get burden- sharing right in the region, as well, so that we can continue the important missions to protect and defend, and keep the American people safe" while reducing costs and burdens borne by the U.S.
Earlier in the day, Pompeo's spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to "discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership - not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East."
Iraqi lawmakers passed a resolution Sunday to oust U.S. troops, following the U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad's airport. The nonbinding vote put the responsibility on the government to formally request a withdrawal. Abdul-Mahdi urged lawmakers at the time to take "urgent measures" to ensure the removal of the troops.
In speaking to Pompeo, Abdul-Mahdi stopped short of requesting an immediate withdrawal, allowing time to draw up a strategy and timeline for departure.
In its initial readout of the call, the State Department made no mention of Abdul-Mahdi's request on the troops. It said Pompeo, who initiated the call, reiterated the U.S. condemnation of the Iranian missile strikes and underscored that President Donald Trump "has said the United States will do whatever it takes to protect the American and Iraqi people and defend our collective interests."
There are some 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq assisting and providing training to Iraqi security counterparts to fight IS. An American pullout could deeply set back efforts to crush remnants of the group amid concerns of its resurgence during the political turmoil.
Both the U.S. and Iran have fought to defeat IS, and neither wants to see it stage a comeback.
IS gloated in its first comments on Soleimani's slaying, saying his death "pleased the hearts of believers," in an editorial in the group's al-Nabaa online newspaper. It carried a photo of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, saying that "God brought their end at the hands of their allies."
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker said future talks between Baghdad and Washington were expected to focus on the nature of their strategic relationship,
"We provide assets that no other coalition ally can provide. ... If the United States wasn't in Iraq, it's hard to imagine the coalition being in Iraq," he told reporters in Dubai at the end of a visit to the region in which he met with Iraqi officials in the northern Kurdish region.
Schenker added that the U.S. and its partners have provided $5.4 billion to the Iraqi military in the last four years.
Ortagus said the U.S. and Iraqi governments need to talk about security as well as "our financial, economic and diplomatic partnership." She did not elaborate.
Iraq is highly dependent on Iran sanctions waivers from Washington to continue importing Iranian gas to meet electricity demands, and the U.S. has consistently used this as leverage. The current waiver expires in February, and without a new one, Iraq could face severe financial penalties.
The demand for a troop withdrawal is not universal among Iraqis. Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers, who oppose the Parliament resolution, see the U.S. presence as a bulwark against domination by the majority Shiites and Iran. Kurdish security forces have benefited from U.S. training and aid.
Protesters criticized the ongoing crisis involving Iraq, the U.S. and Iran in demonstrations across the capital and in the southern provinces.
Thousands massed in Baghdad's Tahrir square, the epicenter of the protest movement, and many chanted "Damn Iran and America!" Large demonstrations also were held in Basra, Dhi Qar, Najaf and Diwanieh provinces as the movement seeks to regain momentum after regional tensions overshadowed the uprising.
Amid the protests in Basra, Iraqi journalist Ahmed Abdul Samad was found dead in his car outside a police station from a gunshot wound to the head, according to a security official who requested anonymity in line with regulations. A photographer covering the protests was injured and is in critical condition.
Meanwhile, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged rival political factions to unite and put private interests aside, saying they risked creating more unrest. The factions have yet to agree on a nominee to replace the outgoing Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned in December under pressure from the protesters.
"Everyone is required to think carefully about what this situation will lead to if there is no end to it," he added.
Iran on Thursday released a preliminary report about the Ukrainian Boeing 737 passenger plane which crashed in capital Tehran's Parand suburb on Wednesday with all people on board killed.
According to Ali Abedzadeh, the chief of Iran's Aviation Organization, the black boxes of the plane have been damaged. Besides, physical damage on the memories of both equipment are visible.
Iran has invited representatives of Ukraine and relevant countries for evaluations on the accident, Abedzadeh was quoted as saying by Khabaronline news website.
He said that on Wednesday after the plane ascended to 8,000 feet high, it disappeared from the radar and then crashed.
The Iranian official said that no radio message of "unusual condition" has been received from the pilot.
Abedzadeh said that the locals saw the blaze erupting from the plane before it crashed.
The direction of the crash shows that after the pilot found the problem, he changed the direction and returned to the airport, the official noted.
There were 176 people on board the Ukrainian plane, including 167 passengers and nine crew members, Abedzadeh said.
On Wednesday, Iranian media released different figures about the people on board the crashed plane.
US allies in the Persian Gulf have loudly pushed for hawkish policies by Washington to pressure, isolate and cripple Iran, but this high-stakes strategy is now being put to the test by the unexpected U.S. strike that killed Iran's most powerful military commander last week, thrusting the region closer to full-blown conflict.
Even as Gulf Arab states — like Israel — lobbied hard for tough U.S. sanctions and maximum pressure on Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have wanted to avoid outright war.
Friday's airstrike that killed the Revolutionary Guard's powerful Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, appears to have caught America's Gulf allies off-guard. Now they are trying to make sure the major escalation by President Donald Trump doesn't drag them further into the cross-hairs of rising tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Iran, which held an unprecedented multi-city funeral procession for Soleimani that drew millions to the streets to mourn him, retaliated early Wednesday by firing a series of ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq where American troops are stationed.
Trump signaled he would not retaliate militarily, but vowed to continue his campaign of maximum pressure and economic sanctions on Iran.
As the region braces for what comes next, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are calling for de-escalation.
Saudi Arabia dispatched Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman to Washington, where he met with Trump and the U.S. president's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner at the White House on Monday. The kingdom says he discussed "efforts to reduce tensions and avoid escalations that could further destabilize the region in light of the Iranian regime's provocations and destabilizing activities."
Qatar's foreign minister, meanwhile, traveled to Tehran the day after the killing of Soleimani and also called for de-escalation.
"Nobody wants the outbreak of conventional war because when conventional war happens there are no winners, there are just a series of losers," said Mohammed Alyahya, the Saudi editor-in-chief of the Al-Arabiya English news website.
This latest round of tensions has pushed oil prices up, with Brent crude trading around $70 a barrel. UAE Energy Minister Suhail Al-Mazrouei said on Wednesday there is no risk at the moment to the movement of oil in the region or any shortages in oil supply.
He noted, however, that Soleimani's killing was "definitely an escalation."
"Iran is a neighbor. We are (geographically) very close to Iran and the last thing we want is another tension in the Middle East," the energy minister said, reiterating calls for de-escalation.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have long wanted the U.S. to push back Tehran's drive to spread influence and power across the region, and Soleimani was central to Iran's ambitions. Viewed by Sunni Muslims across much of the region as a menacing figure, his role as Quds Force commander put him in charge of lethal Shiite proxy militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen fighting against Gulf Arab interests. In Iran, he's hailed as a national hero who defied U.S. pressure.
Even after Soleiman's killing, there's little indication they've stopped skirting the dangerous line between maximum pressure and war.
Alyahya said the pressure strategy is still needed to stop Iran's Quds Force but he acknowledged that "it is a very risky game, and if it backfires, the consequences are grave."
Robert Malley, who heads International Crisis Group and served on Obama's National Security Council, said Gulf countries are likely satisfied that Soleimani was killed, but are also worried because Iran could inflict serious damage on their economies.
"I think they are now sending the message to the U.S. and to others: 'Let's not let this go too far because you're living very far away ... we're going to be the ones who will pay the price and you won't be here to protect us'," he said.
The Persian Gulf could be another target of Iranian retaliation. It hosts more than 30,000 U.S. troops, including the Navy's 5th Fleet stationed in Bahrain, U.S. Army's Central forward headquarters in Kuwait and at the sprawling Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The U.S. also has hundreds of troops in Saudi Arabia and advanced drones, F-35 fighter jets and several thousand military personnel in Al-Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi.
Already over the summer, a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and a major missile and drone attack on Saudi oil facilities were blamed on Iran. Tehran denied responsibility, though it did seize oil tankers around the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf, through which 20% of the world's crude oil travels.
Over the weekend, the U.S. warned American citizens in Saudi Arabia of a heightened risk of missile and drone strikes, particularly near military bases, oil and gas facilities and other critical civilian infrastructure.
Since the September attack on Saudi Arabia, which temporarily halved its oil production, there appears to have been a quiet effort at diplomacy between Iran and the kingdom to ease tensions. But there's no sign either side had inched closer to overcoming their rivalry.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi told lawmakers in Baghdad on Sunday that he had been scheduled to meet Soleimani the morning he was killed. He said Soleimani was carrying a message from Iran's supreme leader in response to a Saudi message relayed through Iraq to Iran about "important agreements and breakthroughs in Iraq and the region." Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia have confirmed Abdul-Mahdi's comments.
Alyahya called Abdul-Mahdi's account "an intricate tall tale." Echoing widespread Saudi sentiment, he said Soleimani was no dove for peace.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday also dismissed the notion as "propagandist" and suggested that the Saudis share his view that Soleimani was not in Iraq on a peace mission.
Complicating the Gulf rulers' calculations are questions about whether Trump's decision to order the strike on Soleimani was made impulsively or is part of a longer-term strategy.
Gulf allies have been questioning Trump's reliability as a security partner. Though he has strengthened America's military presence in the Gulf amid rising tensions with Iran, Trump did not step in to militarily defend Saudi interests after the attack on oil sites and backed away from retaliation when Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone in the Strait of Hormuz.
In remarks on Wednesday Trump stated: "We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil" and said he would ask NATO to step up its involvement in the region.
"The constant thing about Trump is he's unpredictable," Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdullah said. "We didn't that he would do this. Now, we don't know what he will do next."
"Is America ready for revenge of a sort coming from Iran? Is the region ready for a sharp escalation?" asked Abdullah.
The crew of a Ukrainian jetliner that crashed in Iran, killing all 176 people on board, never made a radio call for help and were trying to turn back for the airport when their burning plane went down, an initial Iranian investigative report said Thursday. Ukraine, meanwhile, said it considered a missile strike as one of several possible theories for the crash, despite Iran's denials.
The Iranian report suggests that a sudden emergency struck the Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines early on Wednesday morning, when it crashed, just minutes after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran.
Investigators from Iran's Civil Aviation Organization offered no immediate explanation for the disaster, however. Iranian officials initially blamed a technical malfunction for the crash, something initially backed by Ukrainian officials before they said they wouldn't speculate amid an ongoing investigation.
The crash came just a few hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack against Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops amid a confrontation with Washington over it killing an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general in a drone strike last week.
The Ukrainian International Airlines took off at 6:12 a.m. Wednesday, after nearly an hour's delay at Tehran's Imam Khomeini Airport, the main airport for travelers in Iran. It gained altitude heading west, reaching nearly 8,000 feet, according to both the report and flight-tracking data.
Then something went wrong, though "no radio messages were received from the pilot regarding unusual situations," the report said. In emergencies, pilots typically immediately contact air-traffic controllers.
Eyewitnesses, including the crew of another flight passing above it, described seeing the plane engulfed in flames before crashing at 6:18 a.m., the report said.
The crash caused a massive explosion when the plane hit the ground, likely because the aircraft had been fully loaded with fuel for the flight to Kyiv, Ukraine.
The report also confirmed that both of the so-called "black boxes" that contain data and cockpit communications from the plane had been recovered, though they sustained damage and some parts of their memory was lost. It also said that investigators have initially ruled out laser or electromagnetic interference as causing the crash.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine's Security Council, told Ukrainian media that officials had several working theories regarding the crash, including a missile strike.
"A strike by a missile, possibly a Tor missile system, is among the main (theories), as information has surfaced on the internet about elements of a missile being found near the site of the crash," Danilov said. He did not elaborate on where he saw the information on the internet.
Ukrainian investigators that arrived in Iran earlier on Thursday currently await permission from Iranian authorities to examine the crash site and look for missile fragments, Danilov said.
The Tor is a Russian-made missile system. Russia delivered 29 Tor-M1s to Iran in 2007 as part of a $700 million contract signed in December 2005. Iran has displayed the missiles in military parades as well.
Iran did not immediately respond to the Ukrainian comments. However, Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, the spokesman of the Iranian armed forces, denied a missile hit the airplane in a comments reported Wednesday by the semiofficial Fars news agency. He dismissed the allegation as "psychological warfare" by foreign-based Iranian opposition groups.
Ukraine has a grim history with missile attacks, including in July 2014 when one such strike downed a Malaysian Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.
Danilov also said other possible causes under consideration included a drone or another flying object crashing into the plane, a terrorist attack or an engine malfunction causing an explosion. However, no terror group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The plane was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. The crash just before dawn scattered flaming debris and passengers' belongings across a wide stretch of farmland.
Many of the passengers were believed to be international students attending universities in Canada; they were making their way back to Toronto by way of Kyiv after visiting with family during the winter break.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he planned to call Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the crash and the investigation.
"Undoubtedly, the priority for Ukraine is to identify the causes of the plane crash," Zelenskiy said. "We will surely find out the truth."
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said 138 of the passengers were bound for Canada.. The flight also included a family of four and newlyweds, too. The manifest listed several teenagers and children, some as young as 1 or 2.
The crash ranked among the worst losses of life for Canadians in an aviation disaster. The flag over Parliament in Ottawa was lowered to half-staff, and Trudeau vowed to get to the bottom of the disaster.
"Know that all Canadians are grieving with you," he said, addressing the victims' families.
Ukrainian officials, for their part, initially agreed with Iranian suspicions that the 3½-year-old plane was brought down by mechanical trouble but later backed away from that and declined to offer a cause while the investigation is going on.
While the cause of the tragedy remained unknown, the disaster could further damage Boeing's reputation, which has been battered by the furor over two deadly crashes involving a different model of the Boeing jet, the much-newer 737 Max, which has been grounded for nearly 10 months. The uproar led to the firing of the company's CEO last month.
Boeing extended condolences to the victims' families and said it stands ready to assist.
President Donald Trump said Wednesday that Iran appears to be "standing down" and no Americans or Iraqis were harmed in Iran's missile strike on two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops.
Speaking from the White House, Trump seemed intent on deescalating the crisis, indicating that he would not retaliate militarily for the strikes. Instead, he said the U.S. would immediately put in place new economic sanctions "until Iran changes its behavior" after that country's most brazen direct assault on America since the 1979 seizing of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
The attack came days after Trump authorized the targeted killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force. Iran had pledged to retaliate, bringing the two countries closer to the brink of war.
Trump credited an early warning system "that worked very well" for the fact that no Americans or Iraqis were killed. He added that Americans should be "extremely grateful and happy" with the outcome.
He reiterated his position that "Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon" and called for new nuclear negotiations to replace the 2015 nuclear deal from which he withdrew the U.S.
Trump also announced he would ask NATO to become "much more involved in the Middle East process."