Esper: No Decision to Leave Iraq Following Parliament’s Vote

There are no plans to remove forces from Iraq following the Iraqi Parliament’s non-binding resolution calling on the government to kick coalition forces from the country, despite a mistakenly released letter detailing plans to withdraw, top Pentagon officials said Jan. 6.

“There has been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, according to The Associated Press. “There’s no decision to leave, nor did we issue any plans to leave or prepare to leave.”

Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah added there’s been no change in US policy regarding the presence in Iraq. “We continue to consult with the Iraqi government” regarding the mission to defeat the Islamic State group, though anti-ISIS operations were suspended on Jan. 5.

The comments come one day after the Iraqi Parliament passed a non-binding resolution urging the government to kick US forces out of the country in the continued aftermath of the Jan. 3 US drone strike that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani and the leader of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces at the Baghdad airport.

Shortly before Esper’s remarks, a draft letter from Task Force-Iraq dated Jan. 6 emerged online detailing plans to remove US forces from the international zone in Baghdad. 

The letter, attributed to USMC Brig. Gen. William Seely III, the commanding general of Task Force-Iraq, says there would be increased helicopter traffic, including CH-47 Chinooks, UH-60 Black Hawks, and AH-64 Apache escorts.

“Coalition forces will take appropriate measures to minimize and mitigate the disturbance to the public,” Seely wrote. “In addition, we will conduct these operations during hours of darkness to help alleviate any perception that we may be bringing more coalition forces into the [international zone].

“As we begin implementing this next phase of operations, I want to reiterate the value of our friendship and partnership,” the letter states. “We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said the release of the draft letter was a mistake. It had not been signed, and was in coordination with other leaders when it emerged online.

NATO also has suspended its training operations in the country. NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, during a Jan. 6 news conference in Brussels, said NATO forces were in Iraq at the invitation of the government and to prevent the return of ISIS. The Alliance is “ready to restart training when the situation on the ground makes it possible,” he said.

NATO is calling for “responsible behavior” and de-escalation following the Jan. 3 drone strike, which Stoltenberg said was a US decision.

US forces continued to deploy to the region as tensions with Iran increase. CNN, citing an unnamed official, reported that six B-52s will deploy to Diego Garcia to be available for possible operations. Pacific Air Forces did not confirm this deployment to Air Force Magazine. Soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade from Vicenza, Italy, are also deploying to the Middle East, according to Stars & Stripes.