'No Decision Whatsoever' To Withdraw US Troops From Iraq

Senior US defence officials have dismissed a draft letter appearing to suggest troop removal was underway.

The United States has denied that American troops will be pulled out of Iraq, after an unsigned draft letter from a senior military officer appeared to suggest plans for withdrawal were underway.

The Iraqi parliament voted to expel all foreign forces from the country, following the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani last week in an air strike.

The draft said troops would be "repositioning over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement", and warned of an increase in helicopter travel around the Green Zone in Baghdad.

It added: "We respect your sovereignty decision to order our departure."

Iraq's fortified Green Zone houses government buildings and foreign missions, including UK troops on Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he could not confirm the authenticity of the draft letter, but stated: "There's been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq.

"I don't know what that letter is.

"But there's been no decision made to leave Iraq. Period."

However, while the training of Iraqi forces by US and coalition personnel remains suspended, Mr Esper reaffirmed that America is "committed" on working to defeat so-called Islamic State in the long term.

More than 5,000 US troops are thought to be deployed in Iraq, while the UK has around 400 on the ground in the country in a training capacity.

US troops watch the crowd protesting outside a section of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq in Baghdad, on 1 January 2020 (Picture: US Department of Defense).

US officials have said they are braced for Iran to respond to the killing of General Soleimani, possibly in the form of a "tit-for-tat" attempt on the life of an American military commander.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US is moving forces around Iraq and Kuwait, describing the draft letter as an "honest mistake".

He also said the US "knew there'd be risk" prior to the death of General Soleimani, and that they were aware the "force protection posture" of military personnel in the region would need to be reviewed.

There are fears that an evacuation of British and American personnel from Iraq could lead to a power vacuum and the rise of terror groups.

Last month, a Kurdish intelligence official warned of a resurgence of the so-called Islamic State group in Iraq.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will chair a National Security Council meeting later this morning to discuss the situation in Iran, amid suggestions the UK has cut embassy staff in Iran and Iraq. 

Downing Street says Mr Johnson and Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, have agreed to work to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis in the Persian Gulf.

Cover image: General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with US troops in Baghdad (Picture: US Army).