A leaked letter from the U.S. military to Iraq that created impressions of an imminent U.S. withdrawal on Monday was instead a poorly worded draft document meant to only underscore increased movement of forces, a top U.S. general told reporters.
"Poorly worded, implies withdrawal. That's not what's happening," U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a group of reporters, stressing there was no withdrawal being planned.
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Milley said the United States wanted to explain to the Iraqi military that there had been increased movement of aircraft, including transporting forces between bases in Iraq and also moving them into Iraq from Kuwait.
Milley declined to say how many forces were in Iraq currently. The U.S. military has said the number is around 5,000.
"It (the draft letter) was sent over to some key Iraqi military guys in order to get things coordinated for air movements, etc. Then it went from that guy's hands to another guy's hands and then it went to your hands. Now it's a kerfuffle," Milley said.
Milley stated that the unsigned draft document was sent around to get input from Iraqi officials, the kind of thing he said he does regularly.
"I send drafts all over Washington D.C. that aren't signed to get people's input and feedback," Milley said.
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"The long and short of it is: It's an honest mistake by people trying to do the right things in highly dynamic situations, etc. It should not have been sent," he added.
"There's been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq," Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, when asked about the letter, adding there had also been no plans issued to prepare to leave.
"I don't know what that letter is ... We're trying to find out where that's coming from, what that is. But there's been no decision made to leave Iraq. Period."
Esper added the United States was still committed to countering Islamic State in Iraq, alongside America's allies and partners.
In addition, Esper strongly suggested that the U.S. military would not violate the laws of armed conflict by striking Iranian cultural sites, a move threatened by President Donald Trump.
Asked whether he was willing to target cultural sites, Esper told Pentagon reporters: "We will follow the laws of armed conflict."
Pressed on whether he would then not target such sites, because that would be a war crime, Esper said: "That's the laws of armed conflict." He did not elaborate.
Targeting cultural sites with military action is considered a war crime under international law, including a UN Security Council resolution supported by the Trump administration in 2017 and the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property.
Several helicopters could be heard flying over Baghdad on Monday night. It was not immediately clear if this was a related development. The letter said coalition forces would be using helicopters to evacuate.
"Sir, in deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CJTF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement," read a letter from United States Marine Corps Brigadier General William H. Seely III, the commanding general of Task Force Iraq.
The authenticity of the letter, which was addressed to the Iraqi Defense Ministry's Combined Joint Operations Baghdad, was confirmed to Reuters independently by an Iraqi military source.
On Sunday, Iraq's parliament voted to expel U.S. troops from the country in a nonbinding resolution amid outrage over the drone strike in Baghdad that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq. The resolution asked the Iraqi government to end the agreement under which Washington sent forces more than four years ago to help fight ISIS extremists.
But the path forward is unclear, and in Iraq’s deeply divided terrain, with a resigned prime minister and raging proxy war between Iran and the U.S., ending America’s 17-year military presence in Iraq is a risky undertaking, and won’t be easy.
Iraq was barely starting to recover from a devastating war against the Islamic State group when a mass uprising against the country’s ruling elite erupted on October 1, forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi two months later. He hasn’t been replaced.
A pullout of U.S. troops could cripple the fight against ISIS militants and allow the extremists to make a comeback. Militants affiliated with IS routinely carry out attacks in northern and western Iraq, hiding out in rugged desert and mountainous areas. Iraqi forces rely on the U.S. for logistics and weapons in pursuing them.
An American withdrawal could also enable Iran to deepen its influence in Iraq, which like Iran is a majority Shiite country.