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U.S. commander visits Iraq amid tensions over strike that killed Iranian general

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/5/2020 Missy Ryan
a building next to a rock: Debris and rubble are seen Jan. 13 at the site where an Iranian missile hit al-Asad air base in Iraq’s Anbar province. © John Davison/Reuters Debris and rubble are seen Jan. 13 at the site where an Iranian missile hit al-Asad air base in Iraq’s Anbar province.

ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT OVER THE MIDDLE EAST —Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command, met with officials in Baghdad on Tuesday, the highest-level visit to Iraq by a U.S. military leader since an American airstrike there killed an Iranian general and plunged U.S.-Iraqi relations into crisis.

On a day-long unannounced trip, McKenzie also visited U.S. troops at al-Asad military base, one of the targets of a ballistic missile attack that Iran launched in retaliation for the death of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who was Iran’s most influential security figure.

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No Americans were killed in the Jan. 8 attack, but dozens of troops suffered from traumatic brain injuries. 

McKenzie, who is concluding a tour of countries across the Middle East, told reporters after his visit that he discussed the future of the foreign military presence and other matters with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, President Barham Salih and parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi.

“The U.S. and the coalition perspective is that decisions about the future presence in Iraq should be made based on the Daesh threat” in consultation with the Iraqi government, McKenzie said, referring to the Islamic State by its Arabic acronym.

“I think we’re going to be able to find a way to go forward. I don’t want to presume the character and scope of that,” he said. “But I think we all realize there’s a significant threat from Daesh and if we take our foot off the pedal it’s going to come back.”

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McKenzie’s visit comes at a sensitive time in Iraq, where the government is grappling with a political transition and protests by Iraqis demanding economic opportunity and an end to corruption.

After months of political uncertainty, Salih named a new prime minister-designate over the weekend to replace Abdul Mahdi, who is now serving in a caretaker role. But the appointment of Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, a former government official, was met with additional protests. 

Iraqi politicians condemned the operation that killed Soleimani, along with an influential Iraqi militia leader, as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and have called for U.S. troops to withdraw. The Pentagon has a force of more than 5,000 in Iraq, focused mainly on supporting Iraqi forces and helping combat the Islamic State.

U.S. leaders have said they hope to find a way to permit troops to stay in some capacity.

McKenzie declined to comment on whether he and Iraqi leaders discussed a Pentagon proposal to place Patriot missile batteries in Iraq in the wake of the recent missile attack.

McKenzie said the destruction at Asad base underscored what he believed was Iran’s intent to inflict fatal damage on U.S. personnel.

On Monday, a Pentagon spokesman said the Defense Department was continuing conversations with the Iraqi government about that subject.

Reporters traveling with McKenzie throughout his tour of the region did not accompany him into Iraq because they did not have visas to do so.

missy.ryan@washpost.com

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