- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2020

There are no plans for U.S. military forces to leave Iraq, the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Pentagon reporters after a leaked letter from a top commander in Iraq suggested a withdrawal was already in the works.

The unsigned letter from Brig. Gen. William Seely III, the Marine Corps officer who commands the U.S. coalition against ISIS, said U.S. officials respect the decision of Iraq’s parliament to call for all American forces to leave following the recent drone airstrike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

During a hastily-assembled press briefing on Monday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repudiated the letter, saying they weren’t aware of it and it did not reflect current Trump administration policy, despite a unanimous non-binding vote by Iraq’s parliament demanding U.S. troops pull out.

The letter was legitimate but was never meant to be sent or made public, Gen. Milley said.

“This was a mistake, an honest mistake,” he told reporters, after release of the letter sparked a frenzy of speculation on the internet. “We understand U.S. government policy. Nobody’s leaving.”

He said Gen. McKenzie called his subordinates in Iraq to find out what was going on there. He also concluded the letter was sent in error.

“He used other words that were a little more colorful than ‘mistake,’” Gen. Milley said. “… The bottom line is, it should never have happened.”

The Seely letter was merely intended to notify Iraqi government officials that there would be some increased helicopter activity involving coalition troops shifting positions inside Iraq.

But the letter raised eyebrows with some very deferential words on the U.S. military deployment in Iraq.

“We respect your sovereign authority to order our departure,” the letter’s last line declared.

“It was sent over to some key Iraqi military guys to get things coordinated for air movements,” Gen. Milley told reporters. “Then it went from that guy’s hands to another guy’s hands and then to your hands. Now it’s a kerfuffle.”

Gen. Milley said he often sends out unsigned draft messages to get feedback from others. That’s what happened here, he said.

“And now they got the feedback,” Gen. Milley said.

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