BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s prime minister said on Sunday that top security officials from Baghdad had met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, and hinted at a bigger Iraqi role in fighting Islamic State militants as US troops withdraw from Syria.
“This issue has a lot of complications,” Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi told reporters, referring to US President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement earlier this month that he will withdraw US forces from Iraq’s war-torn neighbor.
“If any negative development takes place in Syria, it will affect us. We have a 600 km (400 mile) border with Syria, and Daesh (Islamic State) is there,” Abdul Mahdi said.
The prime minister said the Iraqi delegation had visited Damascus to “gain the initiative, not just deal with the consequences” of any future Islamic State (ISIS) activity emboldened by the US troop withdrawal. Iraqi news websites have said that the visit took place on Saturday.
Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi said Iraq is seeking to move beyond its current arrangement with Syria – under which it launches air strikes against Islamic State militants in Syrian territory – he but did not go into more details.
“There are groups operating in Syria, and Iraq is the best way to deal with this,” he said, responding to a question about the possibility of any increased involvement of Iraqi forces in Syria.
Iraqi Shiite Muslim paramilitary groups backed by Iran are already operating inside Syrian territory against the Sunni Muslim militants of the Islamic State group.
Abdul Mahdi has previously said that about 2,000 Islamic State fighters are operating near the border in eastern Syria and trying to cross into Iraq.
The Islamic State group was militarily defeated in Iraq in 2017, but it has continued to launch guerrilla-style attacks on security forces in the north of the country.