Letter Appearing to Signal US Iraq Pullout Was 'Honest Mistake,' Top General Says

Marine Brig. Gen. William Seely, right.
U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. William Seely, right, meets with Iraqi Security Forces generals to oversee the equipment divested to the Iraqi Army, in Baghdad, Iraq, on Sept. 21, 2019. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Sgt. William Ploeg)

U.S. troops are staying in Iraq and have no plans to leave despite a letter that circulated Monday and appeared to say the opposite, top military officials say.

The letter, by Marine Brig Gen. William Seely, top U.S. commander in Iraq, informed Iraqi counterparts of an upcoming "repositioning" of forces in the coming weeks and days in response to the Iraqi government's wishes. Defense officials initially told reporters the letter was authentic; but later, Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley said it was a draft and mistakenly distributed.

"The long and short of it -- it was an honest mistake," Milley said.

Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper said it was also wrong to interpret "repositioning" of forces to mean a withdrawal.

"There's been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq," said Esper, who initially appeared to be at a loss to explain the letter's content and origin.

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"I don't know what that letter is," he said. "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."

Esper and Milley went on to discuss other matters in the escalating crisis with Iran, but the chairman returned a few minutes later to tell reporters that he had just gotten off the phone with Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, to get an explanation of the Seely letter.

"It was poorly worded [and] implied a withdrawal," Milley said of the letter. "That's not happening. It should not have been sent."

The bottom line, Milley said, was "no one's leaving."

In the letter to his Iraqi counterparts, Seely said the estimated 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq would withdraw "in due deference to the sovereignty of Iraq and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister."

The letter's reference was to an overwhelming vote in the Iraqi parliament on Sunday to pass a non-binding resolution calling for a U.S. troop pullout. That vote came in the aftermath of a U.S. airstrike Sunday at Baghdad International Airport that killed Iranian Quds Force leader Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

In a speech to parliament Sunday, acting Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi characterized the death of Soleimani as a "political assassination" and called on U.S. troops to leave.

However, Esper said, "I think the Iraqi people want us to be there" to continue the train, advise and assist mission against the Islamic State. He suggested that "many Iraqi lawmakers feel the same way" despite how they voted Sunday.

Under the standing agreements with Iraq on the stationing of U.S. forces, any formal request for them to leave would have to come in the form of a binding resolution from the Iraqi parliament and would require a year's notice, defense officials said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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