Donald Trump defends withdrawal of forces from Syria during surprise Iraq trip
The unannounced trip to an airbase came after the president had said he was spending Christmas in Washington.
President Donald Trump used a surprise visit to Iraq to defend his decision to withdraw US forces from Syria where they have been helping battle Islamic State militants.
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Mr Trump told American servicemen and women at a base in western Iraq.
“We’re respected again as a nation.”
Mr Trump said it was because of US military gains that he can withdraw 2,000 forces from Syria.
During his first visit to a troubled region, Mr Trump also said he has no plans to withdraw US forces from Iraq.
“I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip Isis of its military strongholds,” Mr Trump told troops clad in fatigues at al-Asad Airbase west of Baghdad.
“Eight years ago, we went there for three months and we never left,” he said.
“Now, we’re doing it right and we’re going to finish it off.”
He said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had agreed to take out “any remnants” of IS left in Syria.
The US presence in Syria was not meant to be “open-ended”, he said, adding that other wealthy nations should pay for rebuilding Syria.
“The nations of the region must step up and take more responsibility for their future,” said Mr Trump, who said there would be a “strong, deliberate and orderly withdrawal” of US forces from Syria.
The visit to Iraq was unannounced.
He left behind a partially shut down US government to greet troops helping hold off extremists in a country where thousands of Americans died during the recent war.
It comes a week after Mr Trump stunned his national security advisers by announcing that he would withdraw US troops from neighbouring Syria where they have been fighting Islamic State militants.
President Trump and the First Lady traveled to Iraq late on Christmas night to visit with our troops and Senior Military leadership to thank them for their service, their success, and their sacrifice and to wish them a Merry Christmas. pic.twitter.com/s2hntnRwpw— Stephanie Grisham (@PressSec) December 26, 2018
US defence secretary Jim Mattis abruptly resigned following the announcement, and Mr Trump’s decision rattled allies around the world, including in Iraq.
Mr Trump’s trip was shrouded in secrecy. His wife Melania accompanied him and was pictured with troops.
Air Force One flew overnight from Washington, landing at an airbase west of Baghdad under the cover of darkness on Wednesday evening. It is his first visit with troops stationed in a troubled region.
Fifteen years after the 2003 invasion, the US still has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq supporting the government as it continues the fight against remaining pockets of resistance by the Islamic State (IS) group. IS has lost a significant amount of territory in Iraq and Syria but is still seen as a threat.
Mr Trump, who speaks often about his support for the American military, had faced criticism for not having visited US troops stationed in combat zones as he nears his two-year mark in office.
He told The Associated Press in an interview in October that he “will do that at some point, but I don’t think it’s overly necessary”.
He later began to signal that such a troop visit was in the offing.
Mr Trump had planned to spend Christmas at his private club in Florida, but stayed behind in Washington due to the shutdown.
It is unclear whether his trip to Iraq was added after it became apparent that the government would be shut down indefinitely due to a stalemate between Mr Trump and congressional Democrats over the president’s demand for a wall along the US-Mexico border.
Adding to the tumult, the stock market has been experiencing heavy losses over concerns about a slowing global economy, Mr Trump’s trade war with China and the president’s public slamming of the Federal Reserve and its chairman over interest rate hikes by the independent agency.
The president made a second unannounced visit to US troops abroad on his way back from Iraq, stopping at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany for refuelling and to see service members there.