Trump puts US exit from Iraq on hold amid fallout of Soleimani killing
President Trump on Tuesday said he did not intend to quickly move troops from Iraq in his first lengthy comments about Middle East turbulence following the U.S. air strike that killed a top Iranian military general.
The killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani has shaken U.S. allies and complicated U.S. policy in Iraq, where the parliament voted earlier this week in favor of American forces leaving the country.
But Trump, who has been a vocal opponent of indefinite U.S. entanglement in foreign conflicts, made clear no such exit was imminent during on-camera remarks in the Oval Office.
“Eventually we want to be able to let Iraq run its own affairs, and that’s very important. So at some point we want to get out. But this isn’t the right point,” Trump told reporters during a meeting with the Greek prime minister Tuesday.
Trump’s commitment to keeping troops in Iraq for at least the short-term was a moment of clarity amid uncertainty about how the administration might proceed in the face of retaliatory action from Tehran.
The president and top administration officials have been adamant that they hope to avoid a full-blown conflict with Iran. But they have said little about the information that led Trump to approve the strike targeting Soleimani, and U.S. allies have expressed unease about the resulting instability in the region.
The last few days have been marked with confusion, as Trump threatened strikes on Iranian cultural sites over the weekend should Tehran retaliate with attacks on American assets or personnel, only to begrudgingly walk them back on Tuesday amid criticism that such strikes would amount to violations of international law. Administration officials had been tiptoeing around the president’s remarks on Sunday and Monday.
“If Iran does anything they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences and very strongly,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, after indicating he would obey the law.
An unsigned Defense Department letter also circulated Monday implying that the U.S. was preparing to remove troops from Iraq, forcing military leaders to quickly clarify it was a draft memo sent by mistake.
“We don’t want to be there forever. We want to be able to get out,” Trump said before warning that an imminent withdrawal would give Iran another foothold in the region.
Soleimani was killed last Thursday after arriving in Baghdad. The leader of the Iran’s Quds Force, which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization, Soleimani oversaw Iran’s many proxy forces and was responsible for hundreds of American deaths in the Middle East dating back many years.
Trump has earned praise for the strike from hawkish Republicans who have described it as long overdue. But it has sparked an outcry in Iraq and Iran, and officials in France, Germany, Canada and elsewhere expressed concern that the event would lead to further instability in the Middle East.
Canada announced Tuesday that it would relocate some of its troops stationed in Iraq to neighboring Kuwait.
Trump administration officials have urged de-escalation after the strike, while Iran has threatened to respond harshly, raising questions about the possibility of strikes on U.S. forces or allies or even cyberattacks.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that Americans “should expect Iran will retaliate in some way, shape or form,” while encouraging Tehran to come to the table for talks without preconditions.
“There’s a big off ramp that is sitting in front of Tehran right now, and that is to de-escalate,” Esper told reporters during an afternoon briefing at the Pentagon.
Trump’s own rhetoric may complicate efforts to ease tensions.
In recent days Trump pledged a “disproportionate” response to Iran if it targets American assets — something legal experts argue would run counter to international rules on war — and vowed Tuesday he was “prepared to attack, if we have to.”
Administration officials have said they targeted Soleimani based on intelligence that showed him planning an imminent attack that threatened U.S. personnel. But they have been tight-lipped with details thus far, prompting additional scrutiny of the administration’s plans for containing fallout in the region.
Trump, Esper and Pompeo all took questions from reporters at various times Tuesday. Each insisted Soleimani was planning something nefarious that put U.S. assets in danger but declined to offer specifics.
“They weren’t there to discuss a vacation. They weren’t there to go to a nice resort some place in Baghdad,” Trump said. “They were there to discuss bad business, and we saved a lot of lives by terminating his life.”
Pompeo defended the legality of the operation amid claims from some prominent Democrats that Soleimani’s killing amounted to an “assassination.” But he did not elaborate on his comments last week that he posed an “imminent” threat.
“If you’re looking for imminence, you need to look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Soleimani,” Pompeo told reporters at a briefing, citing a bomb attack from an Iran-backed militia that killed a U.S. contractor and unrest at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
“And then you, in addition to that, have what we could clearly see were continuing efforts on behalf of this terrorist to build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead potentially to the death of many more Americans,” Pompeo said. “It was the right decision.”
Esper, Pompeo, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and CIA Director Gina Haspel are scheduled to brief lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday about the Soleimani strike.
They’re likely to be peppered with questions about the intelligence behind the strike and the administration’s plans going forward.
Esper noted Tuesday that only the so-called Gang of Eight lawmakers would receive details of the highly classified intelligence behind the decision to strike Soleimani. Those lawmakers were briefed Tuesday.
White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said the administration was still reviewing whether the intelligence related to the operation could be declassified and made public.
“We don’t want to put our sources and methods at risk, but we’re taking a look at that. I can tell you the evidence was strong,” O’Brien told reporters, adding that Soleimani was plotting to target U.S. facilities where American diplomats and military personnel were located.