WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump touched down in Iraq on Wednesday for an unannounced visit with U.S. troops, marking his first encounter with soldiers serving under his command in a combat zone.
Trump’s journey, cloaked in secrecy during a government shutdown, comes as he is weighing a major reduction in forces in the the 17-year-old conflict in Afghanistan and also during a shakeup in the top rungs of military leadership.
The White House said Trump and first lady Melania Trump left late Christmas night. Air Force One flew overnight and landed under the cover of darkness Wednesday at Joint Base al Asad, west of Baghdad.
Trump told the soldiers he has “no plans at all” to withdraw from Iraq,despite a decision this month to pull U.S. troops out Syria and consider doing so in Afghanistan.
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Trump told the troops, according to the Associated Press. “We’re respected again as a nation.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders confirmed the trip on Twitter, saying that the president intended to speak with troops and senior military leaders to “thank them for their service, their success, and their sacrifice and to wish them a Merry Christmas.”
Trump was criticized this year for failing to visit with front-line troops earlier in his presidency. President Barack Obama traveled to Iraq shortly after taking office and President George W. Bush visited Baghdad in 2003 months after the Iraq war began.
“Two years in, Trump was going to get flak for going or not going,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East negotiator for Republican and Democratic presidents. “And clearly those troops who will hear him will be glad he came.”
The timing of the president’s visit followed bipartisan alarms that followed a series of abrupt decisions upending U.S. foreign policy. Trump announced last week that he would withdraw more than 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria and then parted ways with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis days later.
Trump is also considering a significant reduction in forces in Afghanistan, USA TODAY and other outlets reported last week. The moves in Syria and Afghanistan were consistent with promises Trump made during his campaign, but they unsettled some lawmakers because they appeared to be made over the objection of military advisers.
“I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds,” Trump told troops, according to the Associated Press. “Eight years ago, we went there for three months and we never left.”
There are about 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, advising Iraqi forces who are fighting ISIS militants who nearly overran the country in 2014. The Iraqi army fled its posts during that onslaught. Sustained pressure from air strikes by a U.S.-led coalition helped Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces turn them back.
Small remnants of ISIS units remain in Iraq, and the U.S troops there also assist American units in Syria battling ISIS.
The force in Iraq is a fraction of the 170,000 American forces that fought a countrywide insurgency there in 2007. The withdrawal of U.S. troops was accelerated during the Obama administration, only to be returned to current levels after the rise of ISIS.
Trump maintains he opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but his own statement prior to the war contradict that.
The president’s unexpected trip to Iraq comes after he took heat for not doing such a visit earlier. Trump told reporters in November that “I’m going to a war zone,” a declaration that followed a decision to skip a pair of military-themed events.
While traveling in Paris, Trump canceled a trip to an American cemetery about 50 miles away for an event that marked the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended fighting in World War I. Aides said weather made a helicopter trip too dangerous.
Trump returned to Washington two days later but did not make a visit to Arlington National Cemetery for a traditional Veterans Day event. Trump later told Fox News that “I should have done that,” and made an unscheduled stop at the cemetery on Dec. 15.
Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise visit to Afghanistan last year.
Mattis announced last week he was stepping down as Defense secretary at the end of February over disagreements with Trump ranging from Syria to global alliances and sparking deep anxiety among lawmakers about national security.
Trump on Sunday said deputy defense secretary Patrick Shanahan will take over sooner than expected. A Pentagon spokeswoman said Shanahan would become acting Defense secretary on Jan. 1. Trump, meanwhile, has named Army Gen. Mark Milley as a replacement for Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
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