BAGHDAD (Dispatches) -- Iran and Iraq on Thursday held a meeting designed to boost their bilateral ties just one day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Iraqi officials as part of a broader Middle Eastern tour purported to curb Tehran's influence in the region.
Iranian Petroleum Minister Bijan Zangeneh met with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, whose office said he "confirmed the deep relations between the two countries, the two neighboring peoples and the importance of strengthening them in areas that serve the interests of the two peoples, foremost of which is cooperation in the fields of oil and gas."
The Iraqi premier's office also said Zangeneh "expressed his country's pride in the level of relations with Iraq and the aspiration to develop them, and hoped to achieve more cooperation and to meet the needs of Iraq's gas."
The meeting followed Pompeo's meeting with Abdul-Madhi on Wednesday, where the top U.S. diplomat pushed Iraq on "energy independence".
Iraq relies heavily on Iranian gas to feed its power stations, importing roughly 1.5 billion standard cubic feet per day via pipelines in the south and east.
The Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Iran’s energy exports in November, but granted waivers to several buyers provided that they reduce their liftings and find new sources.
Last month, the U.S. extended for 90 days a waiver granted to Iraq from sanctions against Iran but pledged to work with the country to end its dependence on Iranian natural gas.
Zanganeh said on Thursday that U.S. sanctions against Tehran are "fully illegal,” calling on countries not to comply with them.
"We believe that we should not comply with the illegal sanctions against Iran," he said at a joint conference with his Iraqi counterpart Thamer al-Ghadhban.
Iraq has extensive trade ties with Iran, with officials saying the two neighbors have sharply increased their trade exchanges in recent months despite the U.S. sanctions.
Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi had earlier said that his country "will not be part of the sanctions regime, as it will not be part of aggression against any country."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari told journalists last week that Baghdad was "not obliged" to follow Washington's measures.
Iran's Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi said last November trade between the two countries was on track to reach $8.5 billion this year, and Iran hoped to expand bilateral trade to $22 billion annually.
Ghadhban said on Thursday his discussions with Zanganeh had touched on energy issues, describing mutual economic and trade relations as "good and expansive.”
Iran has contributed extensively to Iraq’s efforts to defeat Daesh which spawned out of the Al-Qaeda-led insurgency that took hold after the 2003 U.S. invasion of the Arab country.
Pompeo's trip to Iraq, which followed a controversial visit by Trump late last month, was notable in that Iran was not mentioned in any official readouts, despite Pompeo referencing the "counter-Iran revolution" between the U.S. and its Mideast allies during a press conference Tuesday in Jordan.
Iraq also maintains close ties to Russia and neighboring Syria, whose government has faced a takfiri militancy sponsored by Washington and its regional allies since 2011.
The U.S., however, is facing growing opposition from Iraqis over its military presence in their country and several militant groups and parliamentary blocs have called for the withdrawal of American forces.
New reports on Thursday said the U.S. has made a large troop deployment to military bases near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, causing outcry among the local population.
The troops have been stationed predominantly at the K1 airbase situated 15 kilometers away from the city, Press TV's correspondent in Kirkuk said.
Hashd al-Sha'abi spokesperson Ali al-Hussaini denounced the deployment, saying that the city faced no terrorist threat and Americans had no reason to be there.
The city has experienced relative calm since Iraqi Kurds handed over their positions to Iraqi troops in October 2017. "All ethnicities here live in peace, the presence of foreign forces here may disturb the peace in Kirkuk," said a local resident.
"We're not in need of foreign forces because the Iraqi military, Hashd al-Sha'abi, Peshmerga forces and police are enough. We live in peace with our brothers," another local said.
On Thursday, Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) were deployed to Kirkuk in response to rising tensions after the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) flag was illegally raised over a building, signaling Kurdish claims to the city.
The tensions arose as Pompeo visited Erbil, the capital of Iraq's semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan on Wednesday.