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Iraq cracks IS cell; US talks ‘presence’

BAGHDAD, Feb 12, (Agencies): Iraq’s Interior Ministry dismantled a terrorist cell, consisting of 200 elements, that belong to the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the province of Anbar west of the country. “Security forces, in cooperation with the Iraqi intelligence, overthrew the largest terrorist cell in Anbar province, including 200 members of the group and senior leaders of the organization,” ministry spokesman Major General Saad Maan said in a press conference in Anbar.

The spokesman noted that the terrorists were involved in several criminal activities since 2015 until the beginning of 2019, including car bombs, and improvised explosive devices and the killing of Iraqi soldiers.

Meanwhile, a top Pentagon official arrived in Baghdad on Tuesday to consult with American military commanders and Iraqi government leaders on the future US troop presence in Iraq. Pat Shanahan, the acting secretary of defense, said before his unannounced trip that he wanted to hear first-hand about the state of Iraq’s fight against remnants of the Islamic State group.

Shanahan, who is on his first visit to Iraq, is also to meet with Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. In remarks to reporters after leaving Washington on Sunday, Shanahan declined to say whether he would propose that additional US special operations troops be brought to Iraq to, in effect, compensate for a pullout from Syria to begin within weeks. The US has about 5,200 troops in Iraq to train and advise its security forces, 16 years after the US invaded to topple Saddam Hussein.

President Donald Trump upset Iraqis by saying earlier this month that US forces should use their Iraqi positions to keep an eye on neighboring Iran. That is not the stated US mission in Iraq, and Iraqi officials have said Trump’s proposal would violate the Iraqi constitution. Trump also has angered Iraqi politicians by arguing that he would keep US troops in Iraq and use the country as a base from which to strike extremists in Syria if necessary, after the 2,000 troops now in Syria depart in coming weeks. Curbing foreign infl uence has become a hot-button issue in Iraq after parliamentary elections last year in which Shiite politicians backed by Iran made significant gains.

Meanwhile, Shiite militias that fought alongside US-backed Iraqi government troops against IS in recent years, gained outsized infl uence along the way. This political tension formed the backdrop to Shanahan’s visit, which marks his first time in Iraq. He took over as the acting Pentagon chief after Jim Mattis resigned as defense secretary in December. It’s unclear whether Trump will nominate Shanahan for Senate confirmation.

On Monday, Shanahan was in Afghanistan, where he met with US troops and President Ashraf Ghani amid a US push for peace talks with the Taleban. Trump has indicated he would like to get US troops out of Afghanistan after 18 years of war, but Shanahan said he has no orders for a troop drawdown.

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