Defense secretary denies US troops leaving Iraq

Defense Secretary Mark Esper denied Monday that U.S. troops would withdraw from Iraq after a letter circulated online suggested otherwise.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters the letter — which said U.S. troops were preparing for “onward movement” — was a draft that should not have been released.

“That letter is a draft, it was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should not have been released,” Milley told reporters in an off-camera briefing. “Poorly worded, implies withdrawal. That’s not what’s happening.”

Still, the confusion the letter prompted underscored the chaos that has been unleashed in the Middle East since President Trump ordered a military strike that killed a top Iranian military commander. 

The U.S. presence in Iraq has become a flashpoint amid the U.S. tensions with Iran as a proxy war with Iran has developed in Iraq.

The issue came to a head last week when a U.S. military strike killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, while he was at the Baghdad International Airport.

Officials in Baghdad condemned the strike as a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty that would inflame regional tensions. Iraqi officials had already been fuming over the U.S. decision to unilaterally strike an Iran-backed militia in Iraq it blamed for the death of an American contractor.

On Sunday, the Iraqi parliament approved a resolution to terminate the agreement that allows for U.S. troops in the country.

The resolution was nonbinding and subject to approval from the Iraqi government. But outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi had urged his country’s parliament to end the foreign presence in his country.

In a Monday meeting, Mahdi told U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller that the United States and Iraq needed to cooperate “to implement the withdrawal of foreign forces in accordance with the decision of the Iraqi parliament,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

The United States has about 5,000 troops in Iraq leading the global military coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The growing crisis with Iran has already limited U.S. operations against ISIS, with the coalition saying Sunday that it is suspending anti-ISIS operations to focus on force protection.

With that backdrop, a letter circulated online Monday from U.S. Marines Brig. Gen. William Seely III, commander al of Task Force Iraq, to the Iraqis. The letter was unsigned, but several reporters confirmed its authenticity with U.S. officials.

“Sir, in deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CJTF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement,” Seely wrote in the draft letter.

“We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” the letter concluded.

After Milley and Esper spoke to reporters, Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah added in a tweet that “there has been no change in US policy with regard to our force presence in Iraq.”

“We continue to consult with the Iraqi government regarding the defeat-ISIS mission and efforts to support the Iraqi Security Forces,” Farah said. “We remain committed to the D-ISIS coalition and ensuring a safe, secure, and prosperous future for the Iraqi people.”

Tags Donald Trump Iran Iraq Mark Esper

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