The Pentagon on Monday disputed that U.S. troops are preparing to withdraw from Iraq — after a leaked letter from a U.S. general suggested plans are underway to prepare troops to leave following the Iraqi Parliament's Sunday vote calling for their removal.
The misfire added yet another layer of confusion to an already murky situation days after the region erupted in response to the U.S. drone attack that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani at the Baghdad airport. It also raised new questions about the Pentagon's intentions as it faces new threats from Iranian militias in Iraq even as it seeks to defeat the remnants of the Islamic State terrorist group.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took the unusual step of holding an impromptu question-and-answer session with reporters at the Pentagon after media outlets reported a top US. general on Monday informed an Iraqi counterpart that American personnel are initiating steps for a possible withdrawal.
The reported letter from Marine Brig. Gen. William Seely to Iraqi Lt. Gen. Abdul Amir outlined plans for "repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement."
"We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure," the letter added.
But Milley, agreeing the letter was a "mistake," told reporters it was only a draft and had not been sent. He said he had just spoken to Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, about it.
"He used other words that were a little more colorful than mistake," Milley said, according to reports from Pentagon reporters who were present.
UPDATE: Milley just came back down. Says he just got off the phone with Gen. Mckenzie of @CENTCOM - bottom line is letter was a mistake - it was a draft letter that got sent around for coordination purposes. But there is no US troop movement out of Iraq. https://t.co/m10AYs87P3— Lara Seligman (@laraseligman) January 6, 2020
A defense official who was not authorized to speak on the record said the letter was a draft, not yet ready for delivery to Iraqi officials, but that when delivered, it was to notify them that U.S. forces already inside Iraq would be consolidating at safer locations and leaving or reinforcing bases seen as especially vulnerable to retaliatory strikes by Iranian-backed forces.
Esper also pushed back hard on any notion the U.S. plans to withdraw from the country.
“We are repositioning forces throughout the region number one," he said. "Beyond that with regard to the letter which I’ve read once, I can’t tell you the veracity of that letter and I can tell you what I’ve read. That letter is inconsistent of where we are right now.”
There are an estimated 5,000 American troops in Iraq helping government forces combat the Islamic State.