Confusion reigned at the Pentagon after the publication of a letter about withdrawal from Iraq, with the top general describing it as a “mistake” and the defense secretary saying there were no plans for a US pullout.
“There’s been no decision to leave Iraq. Period,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday. He was referring to reports that the head of Combined Joint Task Force Iraq, General William H. Seely III, informed the Iraqi government of preparations to reposition the coalition forces “in due deference to the sovereignty” of Iraq.
Meanwhile, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said that the letter Seely had sent was only a draft and that releasing it was a “mistake.” The Iraqi military confirmed receiving it, however.
Esper would neither confirm nor deny the letter’s authenticity, though US Army public relations officials said earlier it was real. Instead, he reiterated the position staked out earlier by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that the Iraqi people “want the US to stay,” and cited the rise in attacks by Iranian “proxy groups.”
US President Donald Trump likewise rejected the withdrawal on Sunday, threatening Iraq with sanctions and saying the US will not leave until the Iraqis “pay us back” for an airbase that he said cost billions of dollars to build.
On Sunday, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution asking the government to disinvite all foreign troops – including the US-led coalition against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) – after last week’s assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike outside Baghdad International Airport.
The resolution is non-binding, but reflects the growing frustration in Baghdad with continued US operations in Iraq long after the official defeat of IS was proclaimed.