“At some point, we want to get out,” Trump said. “But this isn’t the right point.”
The comments came amid signs that the U.S. military presence is growing increasingly untenable, at least in its current form, in the fallout from the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. military drone strike last week.
“It’s a hostile environment,” said Sajad Jiyad, who heads the Al-Bayan Center think tank in Baghdad. “They are potentially not wanted, the costs are high, and the risks are high.”
After days of threatening revenge, Iranian forces launched more than a dozen missiles at two U.S. bases in Iraq on Tuesday night in a dramatic escalation of tensions.
“It is clear these missiles were launched from Iran and targeted at least two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. military and coalition personnel,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
The attacks came as U.S. officials continued to defend killing Soleimani as a response to months of increased Iranian aggression toward Americans in Iraq. They pointed to his role in directing operations that have left hundreds of U.S. troops dead over the past 20 years.
The chaos has been highlighted by the reaction in Baghdad to a letter sent by a senior U.S. commander to Iraqi officials Monday. The document suggested that the United States may be preparing to withdraw its troops. Marine Brig. Gen. William H. Seely III wrote that Americans would be using helicopters to reposition U.S. forces “for onward movement” and were required to take “certain measures to ensure that the movement out of Iraq is conducted in a safe and efficient manner.”
Iraqi officials said Tuesday that they are interpreting the letter as notification that U.S. troops will leave. Acting prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said the document “was clear” and expressed exasperation with conflicting U.S. signals.
“It’s not like a draft, or a paper that fell out of the photocopier and coincidentally came to us,” Mahdi told the Iraqi cabinet in comments on state television.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, speaking at the Pentagon, dismissed the letter as “a draft” that “has no value,” and he insinuated that its release to the public in Iraq may have had ulterior motives.
“There may be people trying to create confusion,” he said. “Our policy has not changed.”
Esper, when asked whether a signed copy had been sent to the Iraqis, said not “to the best of my knowledge.”
But Iraqi officials said the Americans sent them the letter not once, but twice, because of an error in how it was initially translated. U.S. military officials confirmed the letter was genuine, and one said that a version sent to Iraqi officials was signed.
The military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the letter was intended to convey to Iraqi officials that the U.S. military would take reasonable steps following the killing of Soleimani, including pulling troops back to fewer bases. Such a move would make it easier to protect them, as well as easier to withdraw if required.
The official said it is unclear why the letter was released, but “we must ensure that our candid correspondence with our Iraqi partners remains fluid and factual.”
The U.S.-led military coalition in Baghdad referred questions about the letter to the headquarters of U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations across the Middle East. Officials there did not respond to several requests for comment.
In Baghdad, two Iraqi officials said Mahdi had concluded that a U.S. troop withdrawal is now necessary in light of the spiraling tensions between the United States and Iran, which risk putting Iraq in the middle of a new war.
In the prime minister’s view, “there is no way to ensure the stability of Iraq without the withdrawal of foreign forces,” said one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue with candor.
“We won against ISIS,” the official said, referring to the Islamic State militant group. “Having [the U.S.] here now complicates things more.”
Senior U.S. officials have continued to defend the strike that killed Soleimani.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has done the bulk of the administration’s speaking on the subject, said Tuesday that Trump’s advisers “gave him all the best information” they could about the strike on Soleimani before he approved it.
“It was the right decision, we got it right, the Department of Defense did excellent work and the president had an entirely legal, appropriate . . . basis as well as a decision that fit perfectly within our strategy in how to counter the threat of malign activity from Iran more broadly,” Pompeo said.
Esper, who had not appeared on camera to discuss the strike until Tuesday, blamed Iran for its history of attacks over the past 40 years when asked if the United States also has a responsibility to de-escalate tensions between the two countries.
“We reached the point where we had to act in self-defense,” Esper said. “We had to take appropriate action.”
As U.S. officials debated their future in Iraq, some allies began to evacuate their own troops following the parliamentary vote. The German government said the 100 or so troops it had based outside Iraq’s Kurdistan region had been relocated to Kuwait or Jordan. Canada said it would be withdrawing 500 troops from Iraq.
The cascade of events comes after an escalating campaign of rocket strikes against U.S. troops hosted on Iraqi bases carried out by Kataib Hezbollah, one of the Iranian-backed militias commanded by Soleimani. After the death of a U.S. contractor in one of those strikes late last month prompted retaliatory U.S. airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah, Iraqi fears of being caught up in a war between Iran and the United States intensified.
For U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, there would have to be guarantees that the United States would cease to use its presence in Iraq to attack Iranian targets, Jiyad said. As it is, he said, it appears to Iraqis as though the chief purpose for the United States to remain in Iraq is to confront Iran.
The Islamic State would doubtless be emboldened by any U.S. pullout, “but the immediate concern for us in Iraq is: Are things going to get worse because the United States is in Iraq?” Jiyad asked.
“The possibility of a U.S. escalation with Iran is high, the probability of airstrikes is high, so right now, it looks as if the greater risk comes from the U.S. being in Iraq,” he said.
There are many in Iraq who would like to salvage the U.S. presence, said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy. He noted that the vote in parliament was conducted in the absence of Sunni and Kurdish members, by a show of hands that did not provide evidence of overwhelming majority support for a departure of U.S. forces.
There are ways in which the U.S. military could renegotiate the terms of its presence to satisfy Iraqi concerns while also sustaining the goal of combating any revival of the Islamic State, he said. They could include maintaining a low-profile U.S. Special Forces presence to conduct raids against the Islamic State and redefining the U.S. mission as one of providing advice and training to Iraqi forces.
“There’s a lot of middle ground here for military training missions and counterterrorism missions to continue in Iraq if they want to,” he said.
Salim reported from Baghdad and Sly reported from Beirut. Louisa Loveluck in Baghdad and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.