In a surprise trip to Iraq, President Donald Trump on Wednesday defended his decision to withdraw American forces from Syria where they have been helping battle the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Trump told US servicemen and women at al-Asad Airbase, west of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
Trump, who has faced growing criticism at home for not visiting troops in combat zones, said it’s because of US military gains that he can withdraw 2,000 troops from Syria. He added, however, that he has no plans to pull soldiers out of Iraq.
“I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds,” Trump said in a speech to US troops clad in camouflage fatigues in a hangar at the airbase.
Trump did not meet any Iraqi officials during his three-hour visit. A planned meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was scrapped and the two leaders spoke instead on the phone.
Mahdi’s office said there was “disagreement over how to conduct the meeting”, while Iraqi legislators said the prime minister declined Trump’s request to meet him at the military base.
White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said the meeting was cancelled due to security concerns and the short notice of the trip, but she said they had a “great call” and that Mahdi accepted Trump’s invitation to the White House in the New Year.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Baghdad after the cancellation of the face-to-face meeting between the two leaders, said there is a sense of “confusion” in Iraq in regard to the US’s policy in the region.
“They are very concerned in Iraq about the 2,000 troops pulled out of Syria,” he said. “Baghdad is much more safe than it has been for a very long time and the Iraqis are very confident that they can deal with ISIL within their own borders – but what really concerns them is Syria and that’s where they are less confident.”
Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria came despite objections from a number of politicians within his own party and Pentagon officials.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis abruptly resigned following the announcement. Mattis was expected to leave his post in February, but Trump forced him out early, saying he was replacing Mattis on January 1 with deputy defence secretary Patrick Shanahan in an acting capacity.
Brett McGurk, the top US envoy in the anti-ISIL fight, announced he was leaving earlier than expected due to Trump’s decision.
Trump’s announcement also rattled allies around the world, including in Iraq.
Trump said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed to take out “any remnants” of ISIL left in Syria. The US presence in Syria was not meant to be “open-ended”, he said, adding that other wealthy nations should pay for rebuilding Syria.
First visit to conflict zone
Trump’s trip to Iraq was shrouded in secrecy. Air Force One flew overnight from Washington, landing at an airbase west of Baghdad under the cover of darkness on Wednesday evening.
Trump has drawn criticism from some in the US military for not having visited the troops in conflict zones since taking office in January 2017, particularly after he cancelled a trip to a World War I cemetery in France last month due to rain.
Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds, reporting from Washington, said Trump’s visit to Iraq was likely to quash criticism for not visiting troops before, even as controversy remains over his decision to withdraw forces from Syria.
“Trump boasted of the elimination of the threat of ISIL and seemed to take credit for that,” said Reynolds, adding that his comments on the Syria troops withdrawal appeared to be “an effort to quell the domestic political criticism, more than anything else”.
“A lot of these things are planned, in part at least, with an eye towards the domestic audience and the political repercussions.”
While there has been no full-scale violence in Iraq since ISIL suffered a series of defeats last year, US troops train and advise Iraqi forces still waging a campaign against the group.
The US military says it has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, focused on training and advising Iraqi troops to ensure that ISIL does not re-emerge.
NATO defence ministers agreed in February to a bigger “train-and-advise” mission in Iraq after a US call for the alliance to help stabilise the country after three years of war against ISIL.
On his way home from Iraq, he will also stop to visit troops at Ramstein Airbase in Germany.