US forced to deny troops 'withdrawing from Iraq' despite letter to military

6 January 2020, 21:19 | Updated: 6 January 2020, 23:00

File photo: US troops in Baghdad are on the move
File photo: US troops in Baghdad are on the move. Picture: PA

The US has been forced to deny it is withdrawing troops to Iraq despite a leaked letter allegedly sent by one of their commanders to the Iraqi military.

In the letter, Marine Corps Brigadier General William Seely said the US would be “repositioning forces to prepare for onward movement.”

He also said he wanted to “reiterate the value of our friendship and partnership,” adding “we respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”

But there was some confusion over the letter after General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told White House reporters that the letter was a "draft" and a "mistake."

He said the US is "moving forces around" Iraq and neighbouring Kuwait and that the draft letter circulated internally by a US Marine commander was a "poorly written" honest mistake that should never have got out.

Defence secretary Mark Esper added: "There's been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq. There's no decision to leave, nor did we issue any plans to leave or prepare to leave."

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Gen Milley acknowledged that some language in the letter "implies withdrawal", but that "is not what is happening".

"The long and the short of it is, it's an honest mistake," he said, adding that he had just got off the phone with the US commander in the Middle East, who explained the effort.

Pentagon Press Secretary Alyssa Farah also said there had been "no change" with regard to US presence in Iraq.

The UK has reduced staff numbers at its embassies in Iran and Iraq as security concerns increase following the killing of Iranian General Qassam Soleimani.

A source told Sky News the troops were being moved from the base in Baghdad’s Green Zone to other bases in the country and in Kuwait.

The British Foreign Office reduced staffing to a “minimum level” due to security fears, however this is considered a precautionary step rather than evidence of a specific threat.

The full letter from Brigadier Seely, addressed to “Your Excellency,” said: “Sir, in due 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.

“In order to conduct this task, Coalition Forces are required to take certain measures to ensure that the movement out of Iraq is conducted in a safe and efficient manner.

Iraqi parliament speaker Mohamed al-Halbosi (C-up) and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (C-down) attend a session of the Council of Representatives of Iraq
Iraqi parliament speaker Mohamed al-Halbosi (C-up) and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (C-down) attend a session of the Council of Representatives of Iraq. Picture: PA

“During this time, there will be an increase in helicopter travel in and around the International Zone of Baghdad.

“This increased traffic will include CH-47, UH-60, and AH-64 security escort helicopters.

“Coalition Forces will take appropriate measures to minimise and mitigate the disturbance to the public.

“In addition, we will conduct these operations during hours of darkness to help alleviate any perception that we may be bringing more Coalition Forces into the IZ.

“As we begin implementing this next phase of operations, I want to reiterate the value of our friendship and partnership.

“We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”

The moves came hours after a NATO meeting in which allies called for “restraint and de-escalation” but also asked Iran to “refrain from further violence and provocations.”

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