In a surprise trip to Iraq, President Donald Trump on Wednesday defended his decision to withdraw US forces from Syria where they have been helping battle the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Trump told American servicemen and women at a base in western Iraq.
Trump said it’s because of US military gains that he can withdraw 2,000 forces from Syria. During his first visit to a troubled region, Trump also said he has no plans to withdraw US forces from Iraq.
“I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds,” Trump told troops clad in fatigues at al-Asad Airbase west of Baghdad.
The decision to withdraw troops from Syria came despite objections from a number of politicians within his own party and Pentagon officials.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis abruptly resigned following the announcement. Mattis was expected to leave his post in February, but Trump forced him out early, saying he was replacing Mattis on January 1 with deputy defence secretary Patrick Shanahan in an acting capacity.
Brett McGurk, the top US envoy in the anti-ISIL fight, announced he was leaving earlier than expected due to Trump’s decision.
Trump’s announcement also rattled allies around the world, including in Iraq.
Trump said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed to take out “any remnants” of ISIL left in Syria. The US presence in Syria was not meant to be “open-ended,” he said, adding that other wealthy nations should pay for rebuilding Syria.
First visit to conflict zone
Trump’s trip to Iraq was shrouded in secrecy. Air Force One flew overnight from Washington, DC, landing at an airbase west of Baghdad under the cover of darkness Wednesday evening. It is his first visit with troops stationed in a troubled region.
Trump has drawn criticism from some in the US military for not having visited US troops in conflict zones since taking office in January 2017, particularly after he canceled a trip to a World War One cemetery in France last month due to rain.
While there has been no full-scale violence in Iraq since ISIL suffered a series of defeats last year, US troops train and advise Iraqi forces still waging a campaign against the group.
The US military says it has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, focused on training and advising Iraqi troops to ensure that ISIL does not re-emerge.
NATO defence ministers agreed in February to a bigger “train-and-advise” mission in Iraq after a US call for the alliance to help stabilise the country after three years of war against ISIL.
On his way home from Iraq, he will also stop to visit troops at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
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