BAGHDAD (Dispatches) -- Iraq's most senior Shia spiritual leader on Wednesday joined a chorus of Iraqi politicians and clerics criticizing recent statements by President Donald Trump in which he said U.S. troops should stay in Iraq to keep an eye on neighboring Iran.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said Iraq aspires to have "good and balanced relations" with all of its neighbors "based on mutual interests and without intervention in internal affairs."
Iraq "rejects being a launching pad for harming any other country," he said during a meeting with UN Iraq envoy Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert at the top cleric’s base in Najaf.
Both Iraq's president and prime minister have hit back at Trump's statements to U.S. media this week stating that U.S. troops should stay at a base in Iraq so that America can "watch Iran."
"We spent a fortune on building this incredible base," Trump said. "We might as well keep it. And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem." Trump apparently was referring to the Ain al-Asad air base in western Iraq, where he paid a brief visit to U.S. forces in December. The base hosts American troops but belongs to the Iraqi army.
The comments angered Iraqi politicians and factions and further added to concerns in Iraq about America's long-term intentions, particularly after it withdraws its troops from Syria.
Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi, at his weekly news conference late Tuesday, reminded Trump that there are no U.S. bases in Iraq and said he doesn't accept the idea of Iraq becoming an arena for fighting a neighboring country. He called on Trump to retract his statements.
Iraqi President Barham Saleh said Monday that Trump did not ask for permission to use Iraqi territory to monitor Iran and said the Iraqi constitution forbids the use of Iraq as a base to threaten the interests or security of neighboring countries.
"Don't overburden Iraq with your own issues," he said.
Curbing foreign military presence has become a hot-button issue in Iraq after parliament elections in May in which blocs linked to anti-terror volunteers made significant gains.
Now, after defeating Daesh terrorists in their last urban bastions, Iraqi politicians and militia leaders are increasingly speaking out against the continued presence of U.S. forces on Iraqi soil.
Trump has said he has no plans to withdraw the 5,200 troops in Iraq, which he says could carry out U.S. airstrikes inside Syria after American troops withdraw from that country.
Sabah al-Saadi, a member of parliament in the bloc led by influential anti-American cleric Moqtada Sadr, has proposed a bill demanding a U.S. pullout.
Trump's latest remarks had made passing such a law "a national duty".
Deputy speaker of parliament Hassan Karim al-Kaabi, also close to Sadr, said Sunday they were a "new provocation", weeks after the U.S. president sparked outrage in Iraq by visiting U.S. troops at Ain al-Asad without meeting a single Iraqi official.
Kurdish MP Sarkawt Shams tweeted that the mission of U.S. troops in Iraq was "to help Iraqi security forces against terrorism, not 'watching' others".
"We are expecting the United States to respect our mutual interests and avoid pushing Iraq into a regional conflict," he said.
Earlier this month, Qais al-Khazali, head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq or League of the Righteous, suggested U.S. troops may eventually be driven out by force if they do not yield to the will of the Iraqi people.
Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also weighed in on Monday, saying Iraqi sovereignty must be respected and its interests should not be compromised.
"Iraq should not be used as a spring board to attack its neighbors. We are not proxies in conflicts outside the interests of our nation," he wrote in a Twitter post.
Iraq’s former foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari also condemned Trump’s remarks, saying they were embarrassing for Baghdad.
Jaafar al-Husseini, a spokesman for the Iraqi pro-government Kata'ib Hezbollah voluntary forces, called on parliament to speed up legislation to drive out foreign forces, warning that the anti-terror force won't wait long.