Defense secretary insists U.S. isn't withdrawing from Iraq after PM calls for timetable

By Wesley Morgan

The U.S. military has made no decision to withdraw from Iraq, Defense Secretary Mark Esper insisted Tuesday, dismissing a letter Iraq’s prime minister says he received from the U.S. headquarters in Baghdad as merely “a draft” that wasn’t intended for delivery.

The comments marked Esper's second attempt to defuse the situation, first when the draft letter surfaced on Monday and more recently following reports that Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi is considering the letter an official policy of the U.S. to withdraw.

“Our policy has not changed. We are not leaving Iraq, and a draft, unsigned letter does not constitute a policy change,” Esper said in a televised briefing at the Pentagon.

On Sunday, Iraq’s parliament passed a non-binding measure calling for the U.S. military to be expelled from the country following last week’s lethal U.S. drone strike against Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

On Monday, an unsigned copy of a letter to an Iraqi military command from the Marine brigadier general who heads the U.S. presence in Iraq surfaced on social media. It said U.S. forces were repositioning within Iraq in anticipation of “onward movement” out of the country in the wake of Sunday’s vote.

Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley scrambled to respond.

The letter was only a draft and “should not have been sent,” Milley told reporters Monday, adding that the general who sent it was merely coordinating the message with his Iraqi counterparts ahead of an official notification. On Tuesday, the prime minister said those comments didn't matter and that he was expecting a timetable laying out the withdrawal.

“They said it’s a draft,” he said, according to The Washington Post. “Okay, it’s a draft — but we received it. … If I don’t trust you and you don’t trust me, how are we supposed to proceed?”

But Esper said that after asking aides whether a signed copy of the letter had been delivered to the Iraqi government, he had been told no. “There is no signed letter as far as I know — I’ve asked the question,” he said.

Asked about the confusion over the letter later Tuesday, President Donald Trump partly echoed Esper's and Milley's comments.

"I don't know anything about that letter," he told reporters at the White House. "I understand it was an unsigned letter. ... I don't know if that letter was a hoax, or was it unsigned or what."

A pullout of U.S. troops, Trump said, would be "the worst thing that could happen to Iraq."

"If we leave, that would mean that Iran would have a much bigger foothold" in the country," he explained. "But at some point, we will want to leave."

Despite Sunday’s vote, the Pentagon hasn’t received any formal withdrawal request from Abdul-Mahdi, Esper said.

“I haven’t received any communication from him or the Iraqi government about the legislation or about a request to withdraw U.S. forces,” he said, adding that the parliamentary resolution was “nonbinding” and that “there’s a few procedural mechanisms — hurdles if you will — that the Iraqi government would need to go through, and we remain in constant contact with them on that.”

Esper spoke briefly about the strike on Soleimani, saying attacks that the Iranian general were preparing in collaboration with Iraqi Shiite militia allies were only “days” from being carried out.

“I think it’s more fair to say days,” he answered when asked whether the attacks were days or weeks away. “He was clearly on the battlefield. He was conducting, preparing, planning military operations. We reached the point where we had to act in self-defense.”

Esper wouldn’t describe the intelligence that led the Pentagon to that conclusion, though, saying only that it was “exquisite” and will be shared Tuesday afternoon with the congressional “Gang of Eight” — the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate and House, along with the chairs and ranking minority members of the intelligence committees — but won’t be included in broader briefing to lawmakers on Wednesday due to its classification.

Esper also downplayed the importance of departures of some allied troops from Iraq, saying that in one case, an allied contingent was temporarily repositioned only because of the need “to move additional U.S. forces into a confined space” that the allied troops were occupying on an Iraqi base.

Germany and Canada on Tuesday announced that they are relocating some of their forces from Iraq, moves that they described as temporary and related to security concerns over an anticipated Iranian response.

“We are doing some of that as well,” Esper said of the precautionary movements. “It does not mark or signal any withdrawal from Iraq.”