The US has been forced to deny it is planning to pull its military out of Iraq after a “poorly-worded draft” letter leaked online.
The letter, which was not signed but was printed on the letterhead of Brig Gen William Seely, alerted Iraqi military colleagues of “repositioning over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement”.
It said there would be an increase in helicopter travel around the Green Zone and added, in reference to the Iraqi parliament’s vote to demand that US forces leave the country following Washington’s killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani: “We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”
Coalition forces would take steps “to ensure that the movement out of Iraq is conducted in a safe and efficient manner”, the memo continued.
Amid confusion that reverberated around the world, US defence secretary Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon he knew nothing about the letter. “There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” he said. He also told reporters the US remained committed to the fight against Isis, in Iraq and elsewhere.
Minutes after that hastily-arranged briefing Gen Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, returned to tell reporters: ”Here’s the bottom line, this was a mistake. Nobody’s leaving.” He called the missive “poorly worded” and said it wrongly implied a wider withdrawal.
Brig Gen Seely’s intent had been to advise his Iraqi colleagues of increased movement of US troops around Iraq, Gen Milley said.
When reporters first began asking press office staff about the letter’s authenticity, it became apparent the president’s own employees were once again caught unawares about what appeared to be a major development in the events following Donald Trump’s decision to order the targeted killing of Soleimani.
White House spokespersons were unable to immediately confirm the document’s provenance, but sources close to the administration suggested it had been leaked prematurely.
The confusion appeared to underscore the fact that the president’s order had caught many in the administration by surprise, and were scrambling to handle the fall out and repercussions.
Over the weekend, the Iraqi parliament voted for the removal of US forces from the country, something Mr Trump responded to by threatening massive sanctions on Baghdad.
Meanwhile, Iran said it was no longer observing any of the undertaking it made in regards to limiting uranium enrichment as part of the 2015 nuclear deal, that Mr Trump pulled the US out of last year and reimposed sanctions.
Alyssa Farah, a Pentagon spokesperson, later tweeted: “There has been no change in US policy with regard to our force presence in Iraq. We continue to consult with the Iraqi government regarding the defeat-Isis mission and efforts to support the Iraqi Security Forces.”
In his briefing, Mr Esper also suggested to reporters the US would never target any of Iran’s cultural sites in any possible strikes, something that Mr Trump had raised over the weekend.
“We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” he said.