Esper: ‘There’s Been No Decision Whatsoever to Leave Iraq’

January 6, 2020 Updated: January 7, 2020
FONT BFONT SText size

No decision has been made to leave Iraq, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on Jan. 6, drawing heightened scrutiny to a letter reportedly sent to Iraqi lawmakers from the U.S. military that signaled a withdrawal.

“There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” Esper told reporters in Washington.

Staff members are “trying to figure out” what the letter is and “there are no plans to leave,” he added. “There has been no decision made to leave Iraq, period.”

The letter, from United States Marine Corps Brigadier General William H. Seely III, commanding general of Task Force Iraq, the U.S.-led military coalition against ISIS, was leaked to media outlets on Monday and widely circulated online.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staffs, told reporters that the letter was real but that it wasn’t meant to be released. “That letter is a draft, it was a mistake, it should not have been released,” he said.

Milley said the draft was poorly worded and wasn’t signed.

The letter, addressed to the Iraqi defense ministry’s Combined Joint Operations Baghdad, stated:

“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,” read the letter. “During this time, there will be an increase in helicopter travel in and around the International Zone (IZ) of Baghdad. We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”

A Department of Defense spokesperson told The Epoch Times before Milley and Esper spoke that they were “still tracking down the letter.”

Epoch Times Photo
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pray near the coffins of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in an airstrike at Baghdad airport, in Tehran, Iran, on Jan. 6, 2020. (Official President’s Website/Handout via Reuters)
Iraq Airport Attack
A photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office shows a burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike, in Baghdad, Iraq, early on Jan. 2, 2020. (HO, Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office, via AP)

The Iraqi parliament passed a resolution over the weekend to expel foreign troops after Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi called on members to act.

“The government commits to revoke its request for assistance from the international coalition fighting [the ISIS terrorist group] due to the end of military operations in Iraq and the achievement of victory,” the resolution read. “The Iraqi government must work to end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, airspace or water for any reason.”

Resolutions, unlike laws, are non-binding.

About 5,000 American military personnel are in Iraq, which has found itself caught between Iran and the United States. The parliament was reacting several days after a U.S. airstrike took out Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.

President Donald Trump threatened on Sunday to impose harsh sanctions on Iraq if lawmakers there forced U.S. troops to leave.

“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,” he said.

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.”

Trump added that “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.”

Allen Zhong, Jack Phillips, and Katabella Roberts contributed to this report.

Follow Zachary on Twitter: @zackstieber