Mark Esper Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran continued to climb after last week’s killing of General Qassem Soleimani as the Pentagon sent additional forces to the Middle East and Defense Secretary Mark Esper insisted the U.S. hasn’t made a decision about leaving Iraq.
The three-ship Bataan Amphibious Readiness Group was ordered to move to the Persian Gulf region from the Mediterranean, where it has been exercising, according to a U.S. official. The group, which includes about 2,200 Marines and a helicopter unit, follows the deployment of about 3,500 soldiers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne to Kuwait late last week.
The latest move followed reports of a letter purportedly telling military officials in Baghdad that American forces were repositioning in advance of a departure. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Monday that the letter was a draft and should never have been sent.
“There is no decision to leave, nor did we issue any plans to leave or prepare to leave,” Esper said at a briefing alongside Milley.
The Pentagon chief told reporters that he believes the Iraqi people and lawmakers still want the U.S. to maintain a presence in the country, 17 years after it invaded to oust Saddam Hussein.
Iraqis “know that the United States is there to help them become a sovereign, independent, prosperous country,” Esper said. “That is not the intentions of Iran. Iran wants to control them as a proxy state. And I think actually there are many, many Iraqi lawmakers who feel the same way.”
But just days after the killing of Soleimani near Baghdad’s international airport, America’s Middle East strategy appeared to be under severe strain. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians turned out to mourn Soleimani, whose exploits in conflicts from Syria to Yemen made him a national hero to many. In Iraq, where protests had recently been fueled by frustration over Iran’s meddling, pressure shifted to the continued U.S. presence.
The U.S.-led coalition to defeat Islamic State said Sunday it was suspending operations in Iraq to temporarily focus its efforts on force protection. The same day, Iraq’s parliament, in a non-binding vote, called on U.S. troops to withdraw. President Donald Trump reacted angrily to that decision, threatening to sanction Iraq and demanding reimbursement for investments made in the country over the past two decades if the government follows through on parliament’s vote.
“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there,” Trump said Sunday. “It cost billions of dollars to build. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.”
Global markets appeared to settle after reacting strongly to the initial flare-up in tensions. U.S. stocks advanced while Treasuries and the dollar dropped. Oil pared gains and gold retreated from the highest in more than six years.
The crisis in the Middle East was just one major issue confronting Trump on his first full day back in Washington after spending the year-end holidays in Florida. Lawmakers began returning to the capital with the Democratic-led House still holding on to articles of impeachment against the president as it tries to gain leverage over the Republican-controlled Senate.
While the reaction to Trump’s decision to strike Soleimani largely fell along partisan lines, one Republican senator close to the president on some issues offered harsh criticism of the move as well as the administration’s broader policy toward Iran, including Trump’s decision to quit a 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran and ramp up sanctions.
“It’s virtually inevitable that the result of killing Soleimani will be a military escalation and a military response by Iran,” Republican Senator Rand Paul said. “Leaving the Iran agreement, placing an embargo and now killing a general? And you look and you say, ‘Wow, hmmm, maybe they’ll want to negotiate now.’ You’d have to be a brain-dead individual to believe that.”
In his most extensive comments yet since Soleimani’s death, Esper appeared to contradict Trump on one issue, vowing that any U.S. strike on Iran wouldn’t target cultural sites. Over the weekend, the president said on Twitter that he had included Iranian cultural sites on his list of 52 targets for attack should Tehran retaliate against the killing of Soleimani.
The Pentagon chief was also put on the defensive regarding the draft letter that leaked out and was reported by several news agencies. An English translation of the missive talked about “repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement.” It cited “your sovereign decision to order our departure.”
Joint Chiefs Chair GEN Milley: “That letter is a draft it was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should not have been released…poorly worded, implies withdrawal, that is not what’s happening” pic.twitter.com/is0AsU1Ksx
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) January 6, 2020
Milley addressed questions about whether Soleimani — who was blamed for giving terror groups and militias technology to build improvised explosive devices targeting American troops — represented an “imminent threat” to U.S. interests, as the administration claimed in the aftermath of the strike.
“In the world we deal in, we don’t deal in certainties,” Milley said. “We deal in probabilities. I think the probability is the elimination of Soleimani disrupted for sure the plans that he was putting together.”
— With assistance by Daniel Flatley