Confusion as US military says it’ll ‘move out’ of Iraq, but Esper denies pullout

After Baghdad MPs call to oust American soldiers, head of US task force tells Iraqi commander troops will be ‘repositioned,’ but then defense secretary says no decision made

Illustrative: US Army soldiers speak to families in rural Anbar on a reconnaissance patrol near a coalition outpost in western Iraq, January 27, 2018. (Susannah George/AP)
Illustrative: US Army soldiers speak to families in rural Anbar on a reconnaissance patrol near a coalition outpost in western Iraq, January 27, 2018. (Susannah George/AP)

The US military informed its counterparts in Baghdad on Monday — a day after the Iraqi parliament urged the government to oust foreign troops — that it was preparing for “movement out of Iraq,” but the US defense secretary later said there was no decision to withdraw troops.

The head of the US military’s Task Force Iraq, Brigadier General William Seely, sent a letter to the head of Iraq’s joint operations command, a copy of which was seen by AFP.

The letter said forces from the US-led coalition in Iraq would “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 that the movement out of Iraq is conducted in a safe and efficient manner,” said the letter, dated Monday.

As the letter was signed by a US official, it was not immediately clear whether it applied to forces from the 76 countries that make up the international coalition.

A US defense official and an Iraqi defense official confirmed the letter was real and had been delivered. It said helicopters would be traveling in and around the Green Zone as part of the preparations.

However, speaking to reporters shortly after the letter came out on Monday, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper denied Washington had decided to withdraw troops from Iraq amid heightened tensions with neighboring Iran.

“There’s been no decision whatsover to leave Iraq,” he said. “There’s no decision to leave, nor did we issue any plans to leave or prepare to leave.” He said the US remains committed to the campaign to defeat the Islamic State group in Iraq and the region.

A US national security official dismissed the letter.

“This is not a movement of US forces out of the country,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks onstage during a briefing at Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach, Florida, on December 29, 2019. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

The official, who was not authorized to discuss the letter publicly, said the letter did not accurately portray the reason for the temporary redeployment of troops and contractors from Baghdad’s Green Zone.

AFP could hear helicopters flying low over Baghdad throughout the night on Monday.

Some 5,200 US soldiers are stationed across Iraqi bases to support local troops preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State group.

They make up the bulk of the broader coalition, invited by the Iraqi government in 2014 to help combat the jihadists.

On Sunday, Iraq’s parliament voted in favor of rescinding that invitation and ousting all foreign troops.

It came in reaction to a US precision drone strike on Baghdad that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and top Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, among others.

On Monday, Iraqi premier Adel Abdel Mahdi met with the US Ambassador Matthew Tueller, telling him it was “necessary to work together to withdraw foreign forces from Iraq.”

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