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Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With multiple media outlets reporting on a letter appearing to reveal U.S. plans to withdraw from Iraq, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters Monday afternoon that no such decision has been made.

Driving the news: AFP and Reuters set off a frenzy by publishing a letter from Marine Corps Brig. Gen. William Seely informing the Iraqi military that the coalition to fight ISIS would be "repositioning forces" and preparing to move "out of Iraq" in the coming days and weeks out of respect for Iraqi sovereignty. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Mark Milley told reporters that the letter was simply a draft and was not meant to be released.

  • “That letter is a draft, it was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should not have been released … poorly worded, implies withdrawal, that is not what’s happening," Milley said.

The big picture: The Iraqi parliament passed a resolution on Sunday calling on the government to expel U.S. troops from Iraq after the U.S. killed Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani and the leader of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia in a drone strike near Baghdad airport.

Between the lines: The legal basis for the U.S. presence in Iraq is that it comes at Iraq's invitation. The resolution passed Sunday didn't formally revoke that invitation, but it is a step along that path. A U.S. exit from Iraq could ultimately be one of the most consequential results of Soleimani's killing, because it would significantly hamper the fight against ISIS and achieve a major Iranian objective.

Flashback: Just last night, President Trump declared that the U.S. would not leave Iraq "unless they pay us back" for a U.S. air base, and that if the departure did not occur "on a friendly basis," the U.S. would hit Iraq with "sanctions like they’ve never seen before."

  • Rob Malley, president of the International Crisis Group, noted during a briefing with reporters this afternoon that Trump may come to view the Iraqi vote as an opportunity to extricate the U.S. from the Middle East, despite the potential benefits to Iran and ISIS.

Go deeper ... Scoop: Trump officials tried to stop Iraqi expulsion vote

Go deeper

6 mins ago - World

COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming

Recreated from Our World in Data; Chart: Axios Visuals

South Africa alerted the world to the Omicron variant. Now data out of South Africa may serve as a warning of what we're facing.

Driving the news: South Africa recorded 11,535 new cases Thursday with 22.4% of tests coming back positive — up from an average of about 300 new cases, with a 2% test positivity rate 10 days earlier. The country's top public health officials expect that exponential rise to continue as Omicron rapidly becomes the dominant variant.

BuzzFeed to go public, after shareholders approve SPAC deal

Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for BuzzFeed

BuzzFeed is set to become publicly traded on Monday, after shareholders of a SPAC called 890 Fifth Avenue Partners voted to approve a previously-announced merger.

Yes, but: The vast majority of the money the SPAC raised in January was yanked, a signal that investors aren't very optimistic about BuzzFeed's future prospects.

Omicron cases confirmed in 4 U.S. states

A healthcare worker inserts a Covid-19 rapid test into a machine in Denver, Colorado. Photo: Daniel Brenner/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Five cases of the newly-discovered Omicron variant were detected in New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Thursday, making New York the fourth state with confirmed cases.

The latest: In addition to New York, the variant has been confirmed in California, Colorado and Minnesota.