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Pentagon scrambles: "There's been no decision to leave Iraq"

Mark Esper
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