Pentagon says Iraq withdrawal letter 'a mistake'

Gen Mark Milley said the memo was a 'draft'

(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 29, 2019 US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks onstage during a briefing on the past 72 hours events in Mar a Lago, Palm Beach, Florida on December 29, 2019. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper denied on January 6, 2020 that US forces would pull out of Iraq, after a US general's letter told the Iraqi government that troops were preparing to depart "in due deference to the sovereignty" of the country.
 / AFP / Nicholas Kamm
Powered by automated translation

A letter sent to the Iraqi government by a US commander in Baghdad claiming US withdrawal from the country has unleashed a sense of confusion over the policy and directives.

“It was a mistake,” Gen Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters on Monday. He didn’t deny that the letter announcing US movement out of Iraq was actually delivered to the Iraqi government, but asserted that it was a “draft” and not a final policy statement.

“That letter is a draft, it was a mistake, it should not have been released," he said.

The letter, which had a Pentagon letterhead, was not signed but had at the bottom the name of United States Marine Corps Brig Gen William H. Seely III, commanding general of Task Force Iraq, the US-led military coalition against ISIS. It was addressed to Iraq’s deputy director of the combined joined operations in Baghdad Abdul Amir.

It read "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.” It added that the Coalition has to take measures to ensure that “movement out of Iraq is conducted in a safe and efficient manner.”

The letter was first leaked to local pro-Iran media channel Al Ahed in Iraq. AFP later confirmed its authenticity speaking to US and Iraqi officials.

But shortly after, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper denied any withdrawal plans.  "There's been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq," he told reporters on Monday. A senior US official told The National there is no change in US policy.

The US has around 5,000 troops in Iraq but that number was expected to go up following recent tension with Iran, and the killing of Iran’s senior commander Qassem Suleimani in a US strike on Friday. The Trump administration approved sending a 750 Marines force to the country to protect its embassy, and more enforcements may be under way, US defence officials said last week.