US troops to stay in Iraq after shock pullout from Syria
American president defends withdrawal during festive surprise trip to meet his forces at air base
US President Donald Trump said he has no plans to withdraw American forces from Iraq, a week after announcing a surprise pullout of troops from Syria and ordering the Pentagon to bring home roughly half of the American forces deployed to Afghanistan.
The decision allows the United States to maintain a presence in the heart of the Middle East and a bulwark against Iranian influence, while also keeping a nearby staging ground should American troops be forced to re-enter Syria and engage a resurgent Islamic State.
A longer-term presence in Iraq provides Mr Trump with a hedge against his withdrawal from Syria, a decision that was widely opposed by his advisers and which led to the resignation of his defence secretary, Jim Mattis.
The development also suggests that Mr Trump's proclamation of victory over the Islamic State in a video message from the White House lawn last week had been overstated. Mr Trump said during a visit to Iraq yesterday that a presence in the country would enable the US to re-enter Syria if need be, suggesting that concerns persist about the possibility of the Islamic State regrouping there.
"In fact, we could use this as the base if we wanted to do something in Syria," Mr Trump said during the unannounced visit to al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq, between Baghdad and the Syrian border.
He was accompanied by First Lady Melania Trump. Mr Trump travelled with a small group of journalists, who were ordered for security reasons not to report that he was in Iraq until he had finished delivering his remarks.
The decision to remain in Iraq also highlighted a contradiction in Mr Trump's message about the broader US military presence in the Middle East. He said last week that troops would be coming out of Syria because victory had been achieved over the Islamic State. But the mission of the roughly 5,200 troops deployed to Iraq is to support government forces in their fight against the Sunni extremist group, which wouldn't need to continue if a lasting victory had been achieved.
US forces remain in Iraq with the permission of the government, unlike in Syria, where the presence of American troops has been complicated by an alliance with a local militia.
Mr Trump's announcement about Iraq comes at a moment of deep uncertainty at the Pentagon, which was thrown into turmoil last week by the president's surprise decisions on the future of American involvement in the Middle East and South Asia, as well as Mr Mattis's resignation.
The Defence Department has declined to offer details about the timing of the Syria withdrawal or whether the air campaign against the Islamic State in that country will continue apace.
Neither the White House nor the Pentagon has made an announcement about Mr Trump's order to withdraw roughly half of US troops from Afghanistan. On a trip to the region over the holidays, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F Dunford Jr, dismissed reports of the order as "rumours".
After pulling US forces out of Iraq in 2011, then-US president Barack Obama ordered them back to the country at the Iraqi government's request in 2014, when the Islamic State was seizing cities across the nation and sweeping toward Baghdad. Since then, US-backed coalition forces have successfully rolled back nearly all of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, including the key cities of Raqqa and Mosul, which served as the group's main power centres. (© 2018, The Washington Post)