Letter announcing Iraq withdrawal was mistake, U.S. says

Letter announcing Iraq withdrawal was mistake, U.S. says

A U.S. Army armored vehicle flies an American flag as it provides security escort for a convoy of vehicles pulling equipment that is heading to Kuwait from Camp Adder as the Army continues to send it’s soldiers and equipment home and the base is prepared to be handed back to the Iraqi government later this month on December 2, 2011 at Camp Adder, near Nasiriyah, Iraq.

Joe Raedle | Getty Images

The Pentagon on Monday said that a U.S. general’s letter informing Iraq’s defense ministry that U.S.-led coalition troops would leave Iraq “was a mistake,” and American defense officials insisted that the troops would remain there.

“That letter is a draft, it was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should never have been released,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told reporters hours after reports about the letter ostensibly written by Marine Brig. General William Seely were published by the Reuters and AFP wire services.

“Poorly worded, implies withdrawal,” Milley said.

“That is not what’s happening,” he continued.

The general’s comments came after the top U.S. defense official appeared to be confused about the letter Monday. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters earlier, “We are re-positioning forces throughout the region, number one.”

“Beyond that with regard to the letter, which I’ve read once, I can’t tell you the veracity of that letter,” Esper said. “That letter is inconsistent of where we are right now.”

The letter to Iraq’s defense ministry came to light a day after Iraq’s parliament voted to expel all foreign forces from the country.

Neither Esper nor Milley would clarify how the letter was made public, or who directed it to be drafted.

Neither Seely nor Pentagon spokesmen responded to questions about the letter’s origin.

(L-R) Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley hold an end of year press conference at the Pentagon on December 20, 2019 in Arlington, Virginia.

Drew Angerer | Getty Images

Several news outlets reported they confirmed the letter’s authenticity with unnamed Defense Department officials. But it was unclear late Monday afternoon who had authenticated it.

According to the letter that appeared to be from Seely, the withdrawal was occurring “in due difference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested” by the nation’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and parliament.

Iraq’s parliament on Sunday passed a non-binding resolution calling to remove American forces and other foreign troops on the heels of a U.S. airstrike last week at Baghdad’s airport that killed Iran’s leading general, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

There are upwards of 6,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

In the letter, Seely wrote that coalition troops “will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement.”

“In order to conduct this task, Coalition Forces are required to take certain measures to ensure the movement out of Iraq is conducted in a safe and efficient manner,” Seely wrote.

Seely said that “there will be an increase in helicopter travel in and around Baghdad’s international zone, and that “Coalition Forces will take appropriate measures to minimize and mitigate the disturbance to the public.”

“We will conduct these operations during hours of darkness to help alleviate any perception that we may be bringing more Coalition Forces into the” international zone, Seely wrote.

“We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” the general wrote.

In addition to Milley’s and Esper’s statements denying that the coalition forces would leave Iraq, Pentagon Press Secretary Alyssa Farah said, “There has been no change in U.S. 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,” she continued.

A day earlier, President Donald Trump angrily pushed back against the resolution by Iraq’s parliament to expel coalition troops.

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build,” Trump told reporters on Sunday.

“We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he said.

Trump threatened to impose harsh sanctions on Iraq if the coalition forces were expelled.

“If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame,” Trump said.

“If there’s any hostility, that they do anything we think is inappropriate, we are going to put sanctions on Iraq, very big sanctions on Iraq,” he continued.

CNBC reached out to several White House spokesmen about the implications of the apparent letter from Seely, and about the president’s threat of sanctions on Iraq. None responded.

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