BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has no plans to pull its troops out of Iraq, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday, following reports by Reuters and other media of an American military letter informing Iraq officials about the repositioning of troops in preparation to leave the country.
The developments came in the aftermath of Friday’s drone strike in Baghdad ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, widely seen as Iran’s second most powerful figure behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei, 80, wept in grief with hundreds of thousands of mourners thronging the streets of Tehran at Soleimani’s funeral on Monday.
Word of the letter came a day after Iran’s demand for U.S. forces to withdraw from the region gained traction when Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave the country.
The letter said U.S.-led coalition forces would be using helicopters to evacuate. Several were heard flying over Baghdad on Monday night, although it was not immediately clear if that was a related development.
“There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” Esper told Pentagon reporters when asked about the letter, adding there were no plans issued to prepare to leave.
“I don’t know what that letter is ... We’re trying to find out where that’s coming from, what that is. But there’s been no decision made to leave Iraq. Period.”
The letter caused confusion about the future of U.S. forces in Iraq. The United States has about 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
The top U.S. military officer told reporters the letter was a poorly worded draft document meant only to underscore increased movement by U.S. forces.
“Poorly worded, implies withdrawal. That’s not what’s happening,” said U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressing there was no withdrawal being planned.
The authenticity of the letter, which was addressed to the Iraqi Defence Ministry’s Combined Joint Operations Baghdad and signed by a U.S. general, had been confirmed to Reuters by an Iraqi military source.
Esper added the United States was still committed to countering Islamic State in Iraq, alongside America’s allies and partners.
“Sir, in deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CJTF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement,” the letter stated.
It was signed by U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General William Seely III, commanding general of the U.S.-led military coalition against Islamic State.
CJTF-OIR stands for Combined Joint Task Force–Operation Inherent Resolve.
“We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” the letter said.
Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi told the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad on Monday that both nations needed to implement the Iraqi parliamentary resolution, the premier’s office said in a statement. It did not give a timeline.
THRONGS IN TEHRAN
Khamenei led prayers at the funeral in the Iranian capital, pausing as his voice cracked with emotion. Soleimani, 62, was a national hero in Iran, even to many who do not consider themselves supporters of Iran’s clerical rulers.
Aerial footage showed people, many clad in black, packing thoroughfares and side streets in Tehran, chanting: “Death to America!” - a show of national unity after anti-government protests in November in which many demonstrators were killed.
The crowd, which state media said numbered in the millions, recalled the masses of people that gathered in 1989 for the funeral of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The killing of Soleimani has prompted concern around the world that a broader regional conflict could flare.
Trump vowed on Saturday to strike 52 Iranian targets, including cultural sites, if Iran retaliates with attacks on Americans or U.S. assets, and stood by his threat on Sunday, although American officials sought to downplay his reference to cultural targets. The 52 figure, Trump noted, matched the number of U.S. Embassy hostages held for 444 days after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Responding to Trump’s vow, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani wrote on Twitter on Monday: “Never threaten the Iranian nation.” Soleimani’s successor vowed to expel U.S. forces from the Middle East in revenge.
Rouhani, regarded as a moderate, responded to Trump on Twitter.
“Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655,” Rouhani wrote, referring to the 1988 shooting down of an Iranian airline by a U.S. warship in which 290 were killed.
Trump also took to Twitter to reiterate the White House stance that “Iran will never have a nuclear weapon,” but gave no other details.
Washington blamed Soleimani for attacks on U.S. forces and their allies.
General Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s successor as commander of the Quds Force, the elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards charged with overseas operations, promised to “continue martyr Soleimani’s cause as firmly as before with the help of God, and in return for his martyrdom we aim to rid the region of America.”
“God the Almighty has promised to take martyr Soleimani’s revenge,” he told state television. “Certainly, actions will be taken.”
Other political and military leaders have made similar, unspecific threats. Iran, which lies at the mouth of the key Gulf oil shipping route, has a range of proxy forces in the region through which it could act.
Iran stoked tensions on Sunday by dropping all limitations on its uranium enrichment, another step back from commitments under a landmark deal with major powers in 2015 to curtail its nuclear programme that Trump abandoned in 2018.
France’s foreign minister said the substance of the accord was slowly disappearing and European powers would decide in coming days whether to launch a dispute resolution process that could lead to a reinstatement of U.N. sanctions on Iran that were lifted under the deal.
Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Parisa Hafezi, Reuters reporters in Dubai Newsroom, Phil Stewart, Susan Heavey and Jeff Mason in Washington, Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Robin Emmott in Brussels and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney
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