President Donald Trump of United States of America 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 the forces serving in the 17-year-old conflict in Afghanistan and also during a shakeup in the top rungs of military leadership.
According to the White House source President Trump and first lady Melania left late Christmas night.
Air Force One flew overnight and landed under the cover of darkness Wednesday.
Trump told troops that 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.
“President Trump and the First Lady traveled to Iraq late on Christmas night 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.
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 appeared designed to soothe bipartisan alarms that followed a series of abrupt decisions upending U.S. foreign policy. Trump announced on Twitter 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. 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.
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.
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