President Donald Trump made a surprise Christmas visit to US troops in Iraq yesterday, his first trip to a conflict zone nearly two years into his presidency and days after announcing a pullout of American troops from neighbouring Syria.
Accompanied by first lady Melania Trump and speaking at the Al Asad Air Base west of Baghdad, Trump defended the withdrawal from Syria and said it was made possible by the defeat of Daesh.
“Our presence in Syria was not open ended and it was never intended to be permanent,” he told troops wearing camouflage fatigues in a hangar at the base. He said some troops “can now return home to their families.”
Many Republican and Democratic lawmakers have heaped scorn on Trump over his Syria policy, saying the fight against Daesh is far from over and the withdrawal leaves allies in the lurch.
One of the critics was Defence Secretary Jim Mattis who resigned following the announcement saying that his views did not align with Trump’s, particularly on the treatment of US allies.
Mattis had planned to leave at the end of February, but Trump forced him to go on 1 January after his resignation letter was made public.
Trump has also drawn fire from some in the US military for not having visited US troops in conflict zones since taking office in January 2017, particularly after he cancelled a trip to a World War One cemetery in France last month due to rain.
While there has been no full-scale violence in Iraq since Daesh suffered a series of defeats last year, some 5,200 US troops train and advise Iraqi forces still waging a campaign against the militant group.
Trump was supposed to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi but in the end they only spoke by telephone.
Abdul Mahdi’s office said there was “a disagreement over how to conduct the meeting.” Iraqi lawmakers said the prime minister declined Trump’s request to meet him at the military base.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the meeting could not be arranged due to security concerns and the short notice of the trip, but she said they had a “great call” and that Abdul Mahdi accepted Trump’s invitation to the White House in the New Year.