Pentagon Bats Down Reports U.S. Is Leaving Iraq

Multiple outlets cited a letter that Defense Department leaders say was a “mistake.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley testify in Washington on Dec. 11, 2019. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. Defense Department scrambled on Monday to knock down reports that the military is withdrawing from Iraq just hours after the Iraqi parliament voted on a nonbinding resolution asking the government to eject U.S. forces in retaliation for the assassination of a top Iranian general on Iraqi soil.  

Multiple media outlets including the Washington Post reported Monday that the United States was withdrawing forces from Iraq, citing a letter sent from Brig. Gen. William Seely, the commander of the U.S. task force in Iraq, to the deputy director of Combined Joint Operations Baghdad. The letter, which was unsigned, stated that “in due deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, [the U.S. military] will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement.”

But following the reports, the Pentagon rushed to deny that there would be an imminent U.S. withdrawal. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, quickly called a media gaggle, telling reporters that they did not know where the letter came from and saying that there has been no decision to leave Iraq. 

“There is no decision to leave nor did we issue any plans to leave or prepare to leave—we are committed to the Defeat ISIS mission in Iraq alongside our allies and partners,” Esper said.

The drama unfolded as the Middle East reeled from U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last week to kill Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force commander who was considered the second most powerful Iranian after the supreme leader, a move that has raised fears of an all-out war. The Pentagon has mobilized thousands of additional forces to the region in recent days and halted the fight against the Islamic State in order to respond to the increased threat that Tehran will retaliate. 

The letter in question emerged just hours after the Iraqi parliament passed a nonbinding resolution asking the government to eject U.S. troops from the country. The move was largely symbolic, as the expulsion of U.S. troops requires signoff from Iraq’s executive branch. 

More confusion ensued after the informal briefing with Esper and Milley ended. Reporters had just minutes to tweet the breaking news before Milley unexpectedly returned to the press room to provide additional information. Milley said he had just spoken with Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, who informed him that the letter was a mistake—although the Marine Corps general used more “colorful” language, according to Milley. 

In fact, the document was a draft that was sent to the Iraqi government for coordination purposes due to the increased movement of forces within Iraq, Milley said. 

Milley noted that military leaders routinely coordinate and share drafts with their Iraqi counterparts in order to get feedback. It appeared the draft was part of contingency planning in the aftermath of Suilemani’s killing and Gen. Seely’s attempt to notify his Iraqi counterparts that he was moving forces around within the country–not reflective of debate within the military leadership chain. 

A U.S. official told Foreign Policy the draft letter was an indication of the U.S. military moving troops in, out and around the country due to the shifting security environment–not of preparations for a withdrawal.

The Washington Post reported that because the United States had suspended some training activities, it was moving training-related forces out of Iraq and bringing force protection forces into the country. 

“Bottom line, he said ‘hey, shouldn’t have happened, draft… honest mistake,’” Milley said, referring to the account from Gen. McKenzie. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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