Several hundred U.S. troops withdrawing from Syria into Iraq will be coming home following Baghdad's refusal to let them stay there indefinitely, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday.
In another change of plan on the withdrawal ordered by President Donald Trump, Esper told reporters traveling with him in Saudi Arabia, "The aim isn't to stay in Iraq interminably. The aim is to pull our soldiers out and eventually get them back home," The Associated Press reported.
Esper spoke after Iraq's military issued a statement saying that the country could be used only as a transit point for the U.S. troop convoys that crossed from Syria into Iraq on Monday.
"All U.S. forces that withdrew from Syria received approval to enter the Kurdish region [of Iraq] so that they may be transported outside Iraq," the statement said.
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"There is no permission granted for these forces to stay inside Iraq," where the U.S. currently has about 5,000 troops in the continuation of Operation Inherent Resolve to train, advise and assist the Iraqi military in the fight against Islamic State remnants.
Esper and other U.S. officials said last week that U.S. troops withdrawn from Syria would stay in Iraq and possibly strike at ISIS in Syria from Iraqi bases, but that plan now appears to be moot following the Iraqi refusal of permission to let the mostly Special Forces units stay.
On Monday, Trump said at the White House that he is still committed to the total withdrawal of the estimated 1,000 U.S. troops who had been in Syria.
However, he added that a few hundred would stay for an unspecified time to guard oil wells in the southeast and to bolster the U.S. garrison at Al Tanf on the Jordanian border at the request of Israel and Jordan.
Trump ordered the U.S. withdrawal on Oct. 6 following a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On Oct. 9, the Turkish military and partnered irregulars invaded northeastern Syria to attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who had been allied with the U.S. against ISIS, in Erdogan's plan to create a safe zone for the return of Syrian refugees now in Turkey.
A five-day old cease-fire in the northeast is set to expire Tuesday afternoon.
Erdogan, who was meeting Tuesday in Sochi, Russia, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has threatened to renew attacks on the Kurdish fighters unless they withdraw completely from northern Syria.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Miitary.com.
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