Iraqi flags wave behind a group of men in parliament

Members of the Iraqi parliament are seen at the parliament in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 5, 2020. 

Credit:

Iraqi parliament media office/Handout/Reuters

Update 1/7: The United States has no plans to pull its troops out of Iraq, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday, following reports by Reuters and other media of an American military letter informing Iraqi officials about repositioning troops in preparation for leaving the country. 

"There's been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq," Esper told Pentagon reporters, adding there were no plans issued to prepare to leave.

"I don't know what that letter is ... We're trying to find out where that's coming from, what that is. But there's been no decision made to leave Iraq. Period," Esper said.

The letter caused confusion about the future of US forces in Iraq, who now number 5,000. A US-led invasion in 2003 toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

The top US military officer told reporters the letter was a draft document meant only to underscore increased movement by US forces. "Poorly worded, implies withdrawal. That's not what's happening," said Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The authenticity of the letter, addressed to the Iraqi Defence Ministry's Combined Joint Operations, had been confirmed to Reuters by an Iraqi military source.

Political chaos has engulfed Iraq in the aftermath of the Pentagon's assassination of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani on Friday in Iraq.

Several rockets landed in Baghdad on Sunday, including one in the Green Zone near the US Embassy, in Baghdad. 

Related: Kataib Hezbollah attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad. Who are they? 

Iran's demand for US forces to withdraw from the region gained traction when Iraq's parliament passed a resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave the country. The vote in Iraq's parliament to expel US forces is non-binding.

An American military letter to Iraq on Monday said the US would pull out of the country and that it would be repositioning forces over the next few days and weeks. 

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump threatened sanctions against Iraq for demanding that US troops leave, including a hefty bill of billions of dollars to repay the US for costs involved with troop withdrawal. Trump also doubled down on threats to target Iranian cultural sites if Tehran retaliates.

Related: Gen. David Petraeus reacts to Qasem Soleimani's killing

Sarkawt Shams, an Iraqi member of parliament, tells host Marco Werman that although the drone strike on Friday has further splintered Iraq along sectarian lines, the nation is united in its desire to maintain a relationship with Iran. Speaking to The World from the city of Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Shams said he boycotted the vote in parliament to pull out US troops.

"I rejected ... taking steps toward destroying their relationship with the United States. ... That's something that we do not want...we want to have a peaceful relationship with both the United States and Iran," Sham told The World.

Marco Werman: US troops are still in Iraq. The prospect, though, of US troops leaving — are you worried about your country breaking down further into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish enclaves?

Sarkawt Shams: Absolutely. This is the fear that we are trying to avoid. And this is the consequence of forceful expulsion of the US forces. If it is peaceful and it's based on that mutual understanding, based on a request and then we negotiate their presence again through diplomatic channels and by talking to our leaders [at] the White House, this is something else. But the way that it's been handled, and it looks like the militias that continue to threaten the US Embassy and other embassies [in] the Green Zone, [where] we have most of the foreign embassies there, have been bombarded every night. Like last night, we had rockets targeted at the US Embassy. And this is going to really make Iraq a war zone — another Syria — and will really give rise to radical groups to exploit the situation.

So, with presidents Bush and Obama, there was a kind of consistency to their policies, even as some say those policies were misguided. Does Donald Trump confuse the Iraqi parliament?

Exactly. We do not understand the United States these days. It's very hard to understand the United States. We hear something from their diplomats. They deal with Iraqi institutions with respect. Even some of these militia leaders, they had some meetings with the US diplomats. But disrespecting Iraq, and ignoring Iraq, by the US president and Iraqi leaders, not having them in the White House so far, not inviting them to the White House, and just seeing Iraq through the lenses of their animosity with Iran ... [We] do not see that the US is seeing the value of partnership with Iraq. They only talk about Iraq when there is a crisis with Iran, while we have our own interests. ... We have half of the country, the west and the north — the Kurds and the Sunnis — they want to have a peaceful relationship with the US and also the moderate southern MPs, the Shia MPs, they want have a peaceful relationship with the United States, but without using Iraq against Iran. This is something we cannot accept and Iraq cannot really tolerate that.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering what all of this will mean for the grassroots protesters in Baghdad, who have been demonstrating since October. They were very upset, as you know, with corruption in Iraq. But what are their feelings about Iranian influence in Iraq?

Well, they are already starting a campaign saying that the parliament does not represent me, which means that the decision yesterday by forcible expulsion of the US forces does not represent their will. They know that when the US is withdrawn — when US-Iraqi ties cut, that will mean more militias. And that means all of the gains they had, the reforms, [are] going to be over and there will be no space for peaceful assembly. That's really very sad. And I am in communication with them on a daily basis. They are urging us to take action to do something to save the relationship with the United States for the sake of Iraq. But that's really very helpless because very few MPs in the Iraqi parliament ... have the courage to publicly say that, publicly say that we need to save the relationship with the United States. But we also need to start [having] a successful negotiation with the United States on how to avoid confronting Iran on Iraqi soil.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed to this report. 

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