President Donald Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, arrived in Iraq on Wednesday on his first-ever visit to a combat zone.
The Trumps boarded Air Force One late Christmas night for the flight to Iraq "to visit with our troops and senior military leadership to thank them for their service, their success, and their sacrifice and to wish them a Merry Christmas," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
The surprise trip to Al Asad Air Base, about 100 miles west of Baghdad, comes as Trump faces controversy over his order last week to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a partial government shutdown, and turmoil in the stock market.
Headlines appeared on several news outlets stating that Trump was the first president since 2002 who had not visited with the troops at Christmas time.
The first indications that he was not at the White House included his lack of Twitter postings through Wednesday morning and discussions among airplane spotters of a Boeing VC-25A in European airspace. The trip was announced only after Air Force One landed in Iraq.
Once on the ground, Trump, wearing a black suit coat and signature red tie, took selfies with troops who surrounded him as he left the plane.
In addition to withdrawing the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, Trump has also suggested reducing U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan by half -- from about 14,000 to 7,000 -- but had not mentioned the estimated 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in his effort to reduce the U.S. military footprint worldwide.
At the air base in Iraq, he suggested that Iraq could be used as a base for airstrikes and counter-terror raids into Syria to hit at remnants of the Islamic State, which had been the main focus of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had also suggested that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) could play a role in Syria, in addition to their own efforts to eliminate remaining ISIS cells inside Iraq. Iraqi warplanes have occasionally bombed ISIS targets just over the border in Syria, and Iraqi artillery units have fired in support of the SDF.
"If we see something happening with ISIS that we don't like [inside Syria], we can hit them so fast and so hard they really won't know what the hell happened," Trump said at Al Asad, according to Bloomberg News.
"We've knocked them silly," he said of ISIS, a reference to the long campaign to oust the terror group from Iraq and capture their so-called capital in the eastern Syrian town of Raqqa.
Trump's first visit to a war zone came nearly two years into his presidency. In contrast, former President George W. Bush visited U.S. troops in Iraq about six months after the 2003 invasion, and former President Barack Obama visited U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the first year of his first term.
In November, Trump said he would make a combat zone visit but gave no timeline.
On "Fox News Sunday," he said he had an unbelievably busy schedule, but "I think you will see that happen."
"There are things that are being planned" to make a visit with the troops possible, Trump said. "We don't want to talk about it because of -- obviously, because of security reasons and everything else. But there are things that are planned."
Initial reports from Al Asad were that the Trumps would likely spend about three hours at the base, meeting with troops and holding discussions with commanders. It was not immediately clear whether Air Force One would then begin the trip back to the U.S. or make a second stop in Iraq at another U.S. base.
-- Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this story.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.