US to pull its troops out of Baghdad 'but not Iraq'
The United States last night said it was moving troops out of Baghdad at the request of the Iraqi government.
An official letter said the US-led task force was preparing for "onward movement" over "the coming days and weeks", in what was seen as a conciliatory step following the assassination of Iran's most senior general by drone strike in the Iraqi capital last week.
It comes as the UK warned the killing of Qasem Soleimani had opened the "biggest ever cracks" in the Western alliance, after Downing Street rebuked Donald Trump over his threats against Tehran.
The US letter to the Iraqi authorities followed a vote in Iraq's parliament to expel Western forces.
Initially there were questions over whether the troop movements were the start of a full withdrawal.
However, Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, said Washington had no plans to pull its 5,000 troops out of Iraq, adding that such an interpretation of the letter was "inconsistent with policy at this time".
"There has been no decision to leave Iraq. Period," he added.
A coalition source said the "onward movement" in the letter referred to the relocation of hundreds of troops from the Green Zone to less "hot" areas.
The letter, signed by the commanding general of the US-led military coalition against Isil and delivered to Iraqi officials, said: "We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure."
"Sir, in deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi parliament and the prime minister, [the US joint task force] will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement," the letter stated.
But Mr Esper said the United States was still committed to countering Isil in Iraq, alongside America's allies and partners.
The letter was delivered to Iraqi officials as Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wept in grief with huge crowds of mourners in Tehran at Soleimani's funeral.
Iran's demand for US forces to withdraw from the region gained traction on Sunday when Iraq's parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave the country.
Iraqi caretaker prime minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi told the US ambassador to Baghdad yesterday that both nations needed to implement the resolution.
Earlier, US president Donald Trump warned Iraq he would levy punishing sanctions if it expelled American troops in retaliation for the Baghdad air-strike which killed Solemaini.
Mr Trump said the US would not leave without being paid for its military investments in Iraq over the years - then said if the troops do have to withdraw, he would hit Baghdad with economic penalties.
"We will charge them sanctions like they've never seen before ever. It'll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame," he said.
"We're not leaving until they pay us back for it."
Mr Trump last night continued to insist Iranian cultural sites were legitimate targets for US military strikes, despite international prohibitions.
"They're allowed to kill our people. They're allowed to torture and maim our people. They're allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we're not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn't work that way," he said.