Agencies/special correspondent

WASHINGTON - Senior US administration officials have lobbied President Donald Trump to remove Iraq from a list of seven Muslim-majority nations included in an initial travel ban, and two sources said they were confident the country would not appear on a new executive order expected soon.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security chief John Kelly all made the case to Trump to remove Iraq because of ongoing US military and civilian operations in the country, according to three US officials who said the Cabinet members made the case separately at recent meetings.

Top congressional Republicans Thursday called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia after revelations that Sessions met with the Russian ambassador to the United States while advising the Trump campaign but did not disclose those meetings during his confirmation hearing.

Republican Senator Rob Portman said Thursday, “Jeff Sessions is a former colleague and a friend, but I think it would be best for him and for the country to recuse himself from the DOJ (Department of Justice) Russia probe.”

Congressman Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, tweeted Thursday that “AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in an appearance on MSNBC -TV that the attorney general should recuse himself in order to maintain “the trust of the American people.” But later  he appeared on Fox & Friends to walk back his comments. “I’m not calling on him to recuse himself,” McCarthy said. He explained that he was merely repeating Sessions’ position that the attorney general should recuse himself if and when that becomes appropriate.

One of the officials said the State Department was confident Iraq would not appear on a new executive order limiting travel to the United States, while a congressional aide said Iraq would be removed following conversations among White House advisers on Tuesday.

Trump is expected to issue a new travel ban in coming days after federal courts blocked his Jan. 27 executive order that temporarily barred travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Trump has said the travel limitations were necessary to protect the United States from attacks by the militants. Americans were deeply divided over the measure, which had some support but stirred national protests and were condemned by prominent US companies and allies.

When asked whether Iraq would be left out of the revised order, the White House said it did not have any announcements on the executive order right now.

A White House official said the order was likely to come on Monday. There are currently 5,200 American troops deployed in Iraq to assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces in retaking Mosul - the last city in Iraq under the control of Islamic State militants.

Iraqis have fought alongside US troops for years and have worked as translators. Many Iraqis have resettled in the United States following threats over their affiliation with US troops.

“We cannot claim we are an ally of Iraq and at the same time say all Iraqis are our enemies,” said the official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity. “Lumping Iraq together with Iran and Syria, especially in a blanket fashion, only makes a hard job harder.”

The United States also relies on Iraq to provide visas for a substantial contracting force that supports the US military presence. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi asked Trump to lift the ban on people from his country during their first phone call on Feb. 10, resisting calls from influential pro-Iranian Shi’ite politicians to retaliate against the ban.

Meanwhile, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions was under fire Thursday after it was revealed he met twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to Washington, seemingly contradicting statements he made in Senate confirmation hearings.

The revelation cast a fresh cloud over President Donald Trump’s administration, which has repeatedly denied any suspected ties between members of his election team and Russia - which US intelligence says interfered in the 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton.

The White House quickly labeled the report an attack by partisan Democrats, confirming the meetings but arguing Sessions did nothing wrong.

In a statement, the Trump administration’s top law enforcement official, said: “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”

But with US intelligence agencies, the Justice Department - led by Sessions himself - and four Congressional committees examining the Russia scandal, Democrats demanded that Sessions recuse himself from the investigations and for Congress to name an independent special investigator to oversee a broad probe.

“Given AG Sessions’s false statements about contacts with Russian officials, we need a special counsel to investigate Trump associates’ ties to Russia,” said Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The Washington Post reported late Wednesday that Sessions - formerly a senator who advised Trump’s campaign on foreign policy and other issues - met Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in July and September, just as accusations of Russian interference in the election were mounting.

Sessions, however, told his confirmation hearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 10 that he did not know of contacts between Trump campaign members and Russia. “I did not have communications with the Russians,” he said under oath.

Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, called for Sessions to step down.

“After lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russian, the attorney general must resign,” she said.

Democrat Elijah Cummings of the House Oversight Committee echoed that call.

“When senator Sessions testified under oath that ‘I did not have communications with the Russians,’ his statement was demonstrably false, yet he let it stand for weeks,” Cummings said.

“Attorney General Sessions should resign immediately, and there is no longer any question that we need a truly independent commission to investigate this issue.”

A White House official dubbed the latest report an “attack.”

“This is the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats,” the official said.

“Sessions met with the ambassador in an official capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is entirely consistent with his testimony.”

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called for answers on Russian ties but cautioned that contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow “may be legitimate.”

“If there were contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, they may be legitimate; they may be okay. I want to know what happened between the Trump campaign, the Clinton campaign and the Russians,” Graham said at a CNN townhall late Wednesday.

Sessions was confirmed as attorney general on February 8, and sworn in a day later, moving in place to oversee Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation probes into the alleged communications between Trump campaign officials and Moscow.

The New York Times reported two weeks ago, citing US intelligence sources, that three campaign staff - including campaign chief Paul Manafort - had communicated with Russian intelligence officers.

The White House also labeled that report “false” and has accused Democrats, the media and the intelligence community of a political effort to undermine the Trump administration.

The Post’s report emerged as Democrats had begun warning the White House and Republican lawmakers against trying to shut down any investigations of alleged Russian interference.

The warnings came after Trump’s staff sought to enlist the FBI, reportedly the CIA and two Republicans who head committees leading the Russia investigations, to knock down media reports on the alleged links.

US intelligence chiefs announced in December that they had concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind a hacking and misinformation campaign to hurt Clinton and boost Trump’s chances to win the November 8 presidential election.

But they have not made their evidence public, and the Kremlin denies it.

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was forced to resign from the Trump administration last month after questionable contacts with the Russian government and revelations that he lied about them to the vice president and the FBI.