- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 26, 2018

President Trump made a surprise visit Wednesday to U.S. troops in Iraq, his first visit as president to forces serving in a war zone.

The president was accompanied by first lady Melania Trump on the unannounced trip to at Al Asad Air Base west of Baghdad.

Addressing the service members, Mr. Trump said the defeat of the Islamic State, the terrorist group also known as ISIS, justified his recent decision to pull out all 2,000 U.S. troops from neighboring Syria.

He said he personally thanked the troops at the base and across the region for their help in the near-elimination of the Islamic State territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

“Two years ago, when I became president, they were a very dominant group — very dominant. Today they are not so dominant any more,” he said to cheers from the troops.

He said that if the Islamic State stages a comeback, the U.S. troops still in Iraq would be able to again crush it.

During the three-hour visit, the president and first lady had a sit-down with military leaders at the base and mingled with troops in the cafeteria, including snapping selfies with them.

As he worked his way through the crowd, a service member told the pressing that he re-enlisted because of Mr. Trump.

“He came back into the military because of me,” Mr. Trump told reporters travel with him. Turning to the man, he added, “And I am here because of you.”

The president later told reporters that visiting Iraq was high on his to-do list.

“I want to come and pay my respects most importantly to the great soldiers, great troopers we have here,” he said.

Mr. Trump took the long Air Force One flight to Iraq a week after ordering the pullout of 2,000 U.S. troops from neighboring Syria — a highly controversial decision that led Defense Secretary James Mattis to resign.

The president also ordered the Pentagon to start planning the pullout of about half the 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. That move comes at a time when the U.S. is trying to negotiate a lasting cease-fire agreement between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents.

The order to get out of Syria was a long time in the making. Mr. Trump said that a year ago he gave military leaders a six month “extension” to keep fighting in Syria and then another extension. When they recently asked again for more time, he said, “No” and ordered the pull-out.

“The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world,” he said. “It’s not fair when the burden is all on us, the United States.”

He said other countries were stepping up to fight the Islamic State.

“In Syria, Erdogan said he wants to knock out ISIS, whatever’s left, the remnants of ISIS. And Saudi Arabia just came out and said they are going to pay for some economic development. Which is great, that means we don’t have to pay.”

On the return trip, he also visited troops at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

The president made the withdrawal of troops from “never-ending wars” in the Middle East a key 2016 campaign issue, but his decision to pull out now has come under heavy fire from lawmakers of both parties and was opposed by influential members of his own administration, such as National Security Adviser John R. Bolton.

In his resignation letter last week, Mr. Mattis suggested that the president is abandoning U.S. allies at a critical moment.

Mr. Mattis will leave his post on Jan. 1 and will be replaced by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. Mr. Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, will serve as acting secretary until the president makes a formal nomination.

However, unlike Syria and Afghanistan, Mr. Trump told The Associated Press that he has “no plans at all” to remove troops from Iraq.

Mr. Trump has enjoyed strong support among rank-and-file members of the military throughout his tenure, though Pentagon insiders say his withdrawal orders in Syria and Afghanistan have raised questions within the armed forces about the administration’s broader strategy in the region and its commitment to international partners.

The president’s visit did not include a stop in Baghdad, and a scheduled in-person meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi was canceled.

Sabah al-Saidi, the leaders of one of two main blocs in Iraq’s Parliament, denounced Mr. Trump’s unannounced visit, calling it a “blatant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.”

“The American occupation of Iraq is over,” he said, adding that the president should not be allowed to come and go “as if Iraq is a state of the United States.”

Despite the Iraqi government’s close ties with Washington, few political parties want to be seen as too close to the U.S.

⦁ Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.

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