Pentagon gets signals crossed over Iraq withdrawal. Confusion ensues.

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

The future of the U.S. deployment to Iraq, which began with the Iraq War in 2003, remained in doubt Monday after a memo outlining plans to withdraw from the country circulated in public — and shortly afterward was disowned by the Pentagon. 

After the American drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani at a Baghdad airport last week, the Iraqi Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for an end to the deployment. The approximately 5,000 troops are mostly serving in a training and support mission for the Iraqi military in the fight against ISIS.

President Trump, who campaigned on ending the U.S. involvement in Iraq, demanded compensation for the military bases that the U.S. would leave behind and threatened to impose economic sanctions if Iraq failed to comply.

On Monday afternoon, a memo began circulating in the media, addressed to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense from Marine Brig. Gen. William Seely, commanding general of Task Force Iraq, stating that the United States would be “repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement.” The copy of the memo that was shared online was unsigned, although Seely’s name was typed at the bottom.

A U.S. Marine. (Photo: Sgt. Kyle C. Talbot via AP)

“We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” concluded the memo, whose authenticity was verified by multiple reporters in the region.

Shortly after the memo was circulated, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said it wasn’t accurate.

“There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” Esper said, adding, “There’s no decision to leave, nor did we issue any plans to leave or prepare to leave.”

After Esper finished addressing reporters, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the letter was real but did not accurately reflect current Pentagon plans.

“It was a mistake, an honest mistake, a draft unsigned letter, because we are moving forces around,” Milley told reporters, adding, “It shouldn't have been sent.”

While it was unsigned, the letter was delivered to the Iraqis and leaked to media in the country by the prime minister’s office.

The confusion comes on the same day it was announced that Esper’s chief of staff, Eric Chewning, was leaving the Department of Defense, the latest official to leave the Pentagon. Questions remain about the circumstances of the strike against Soleimani, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it prevented an “imminent” attack but dodged questions on what exactly that meant. The New York Times reported that one intelligence official said that Soleimani’s travels were “business as usual” and that they were surprised Trump chose the most extreme option in response to the storming of the American Embassy in Baghdad three days earlier.

Trump has also promised sanctions against Iraq if U.S. troops are forced to leave and threatened to strike cultural sites in Iran, which could constitute a war crime.

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