I obtained an unclassified Dec. 16 Pentagon memo, designated “For Official Use Only,” that states, “all U.S. government, U.S. Congressional and allied senior level visits to [Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Iraqi Resolve] in Syria and Iraq are prohibited,” until Jan. 15, 2020. The memo is signed by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and approved a request made by Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie. Exceptions are provided for the president, vice president, defense secretary, the service secretaries and the joint chiefs.
“Centcom raised concerns about straining resources to accommodate VIP delegations, volatility in Iraq, and the need to keep the focus on support operations in Syria,” a senior defense official told me on Dec. 18. “This is merely a pause on travel through the holidays.”
That caution proved to be prescient. The explanation came before a series of events over the past few days brought tensions surrounding the U.S. presence in Iraq to a boil. A U.S. contractor was killed, and several U.S. troops were injured in an attack on an Iraqi base hosting U.S. troops on Friday. The United States struck back at five locations Sunday in Iraq and Syria, targeting the Iranian-backed militia Kitaeb Hezbollah.
On Tuesday, supporters of that militia breached the embassy compound walls and set fire to a guard station and threw gasoline bombs over the wall, chanting “Death to America” while guards held them at bay with tear gas. President Trump quickly blamed Iran for orchestrating the attack and called on Iraqi security forces to protect the embassy, which they eventually did.
The Pentagon has put temporary pauses on congressional and senior leader visits to Iraq at various times before. But this year’s ban illustrates just how much the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated in recent weeks and months. Trump made a surprise visit to Iraq around this time last year. That wouldn’t be possible today, due to the dangerous situation on the ground.
The most recent congressional delegation to Iraq was in early November, led by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.). There are other congressional delegations in the Middle East region right now (specifics withheld for security reasons), but none in Iraq or Syria, where the U.S. troop presence has been reduced and now stands at about 600 soldiers sitting on oil fields in Deir al-Zour province.
The Pentagon’s decision to keep lawmakers out of Iraq and Syria over the holidays makes sense from a strictly security vantage point. But the fact that there is not enough staff in Iraq to safely host lawmakers and staffers calls into question the Trump administration’s plans to further drastically reduce the number of U.S. embassy personnel there.
Foreign Policy reported this month that the State Department plans to reduce diplomatic staffing in Iraq by 28 percent by the end of May 2020, removing 114 positions in the Baghdad embassy alone. As the security situation in Iraq worsens, the Trump administration should be doubling down on diplomacy, and Congress should be doubling down on oversight. Right now, both of those crucial missions are falling victim to the escalating violence.