Iraq’s top Shiite religious authority added his voice Wednesday to the chorus of criticism of President Trump’s plan to have U.S. troops stationed in Iraq “watch” neighboring Iran, raising fresh concerns that the idea is imperiling the fight against the Islamic State.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani broke tradition by commenting directly on Trump’s proposal — a move that is likely to put pressure on Iraq’s leadership to address the U.S. president’s comments, which have rankled both allies and foes.
“Iraq . . . refuses to be a station used to harm any other country,” said Sistani, an extremely influential figure who typically delivers his opinions privately through intermediaries or through a representative during Friday prayer sermons.
It is a measure of how unpopular and insulting Trump’s remarks were in Iraq that Sistani chose to respond directly to them. Opposition to a continued U.S. military presence has been steadily increasing, and Trump’s comments have given a huge boost to those demanding that U.S. forces leave the country. Fortunately, the proposal to keep troops there to “watch” Iran appears to be doomed because of the intensity of Iraqi opposition. Iraqis don’t intend for their country to be used for someone else’s agenda, and their government understandably has no desire to quarrel with their largest neighbor and trading partner. That is a normal, healthy, and completely predictable reaction, so of course Trump and his officials never saw it coming.
Trump and his officials seem to think they can treat Iraq as though it were a province instead of an independent state, and to make things worse they don’t understand why that arrogant attitude would be overwhelmingly rejected. At least one top U.S. official professes to be shocked by the backlash, which tells us that the administration is even more clueless than we thought:
A little news here: senior administration official rejects Iraqi criticism of @realDonaldTrump ’s desire to use Iraq to monitor Iran. “We are surprised by the response,” senior official says. “We are perfectly justified in wanting to keep a close eye on Iran.”
— Nick Schifrin (@nickschifrin) February 6, 2019 
The president and his officials assume that everyone else in the region shares their obsession with Iran, but it isn’t true. Their tendency to view every regional issue primarily in terms of Iran’s involvement and how to counter Iran inevitably puts them at odds with other governments in the region that have their own interests and concerns that can’t be reduced to hostility towards one country. That is why the administration’s bankrupt Iran policy will continue failing, and it seems likely to generate more resentment and anti-Americanism throughout the region.