Trump makes sur­prise visit to US troops in Iraq

The Tribune (SLO) - - Front Page - BY DAR­LENE SU­PERVILLE AN­DREW HARNIK AP

AL-ASAD AIR­BASE, IRAQ

In an unan­nounced trip to Iraq on Wed­nes­day, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump staunchly de­fended his de­ci­sion to with­draw U.S. forces from neigh­bor­ing Syria de­spite a drum­beat of crit­i­cism from mil­i­tary of­fi­cials and al­lies who don’t think the job fight­ing Is­lamic State mil­i­tants there is over.

Trump, mak­ing his first pres­i­den­tial visit to troops in a trou­bled re­gion, said it’s be­cause the U.S. mil­i­tary had all but elim­i­nated IS-con­trolled ter­ri­tory in both Iraq and Syria that he de­cided to with­draw 2,000 forces from Syria. He said the de­ci­sion to leave Syria showed Amer­ica’s re­newed stature on the world stage and his quest to put “Amer­ica first.”

“We’re no longer the suck­ers, folks,” Trump told U.S. serv- ice­men and women at al-Asad Air­base in western Iraq, about 100 miles west of Bagh­dad. “We’re re­spected again as a na­tion.”

The de­ci­sion to pull U.S. forces from Syria, how­ever, stunned na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vis­ers and U.S. al­lies and prompted the res­ig­na­tions of De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, who was not on the trip, and the U.S. en­voy to the coali­tion fight­ing the Is­lamic ex­trem­ist group. The mil­i­tant group, also known as ISIS, has lost nearly all its ter­ri­tory in Iraq and Syria but is still seen as a threat.

Iraq de­clared IS de­feated within its bor­ders in De­cem­ber 2017.

Trump’s trip was shrouded in se­crecy, which has been stan­dard prac­tice for pres­i­dents fly­ing into con­flict ar­eas. Air Force One, lights out and win­dow shut­ters drawn, landed at an air­base west of Bagh­dad in dark­ness Wed­nes­day evening. Ge­orge W. Bush made four trips to Iraq as pres­i­dent and Pres­i­dent Barack Obama made one.

Dur­ing his three-plus hours on the ground, Trump did not meet with any Iraqi of­fi­cials, but spoke on the phone with Prime Min­is­ter Adel Ab­dul-Mahdi. He stopped at Ram­stein Air Force Base in Ger­many on his way back, for a se­cond unan­nounced visit to troops and mil­i­tary lead­ers.

The air­base where Trump spoke is about 155 miles from Ha­jin, a Syr­ian town near the Iraqi bor­der where Kur­dish fight­ers are still bat­tling IS ex­trem­ists. Trump has said IS

mil­i­tants have been erad­i­cated, but the lat­est es­ti­mate is that IS still holds about 60 square miles of ter­ri­tory in that re­gion of Syria.

Mat­tis was sup­posed to con­tinue lead­ing the Pen­tagon for sev­eral weeks, but Trump moved up his exit and an­nounced that Pa­trick Shana­han, deputy de­fense sec­re­tary, would take the job on Jan. 1 and he was in “no rush” to nom­i­nate a new de­fense chief.

“Ev­ery­body and his un­cle wants that po­si­tion,” Trump told re­porters trav­el­ing with him in Iraq. “And also, by the way, ev­ery­body and her aunt, just so I won’t be crit­i­cized.”

Crit­ics said the U.S. exit from Syria, the lat­est in Trump’s in­creas­ingly iso­la­tion­ist-style for­eign pol­icy, would pro­vide an open­ing for IS to re­group, give Iran a green light to ex­pand its in­flu­ence in the re­gion and leave U.S.backed Kur­dish forces vul­ner­a­ble to at­tacks from Tur­key.

“I made it clear from the be­gin­ning that our mis­sion in Syria was to strip ISIS of its mil­i­tary stronghold­s,” said Trump, who wore an olive green bomber style jacket as he was wel­comed by chants of “USA! USA!”

“We’ll be watch­ing ISIS very closely,” said Trump, who was joined by first lady Me­la­nia Trump, but no mem­bers of his Cab­i­net or law­mak­ers.

After a brief­ing with mil­i­tary and diplo­matic lead­ers on the ground, Trump said he would deny any re­quest from gen­er­als to ex­tend the op­er­a­tion in Syria.

“They said again, re­cently, can we have more time?” Trump said of U.S. gen­er­als. “I said, ‘Nope.’ … You’ve had enough time. We’ve knocked them out. We’ve knocked them silly.”

Trump also said he had no plans to with­draw the 5,200 U.S. forces in Iraq. That’s down from about 170,000 in 2007 at the height of the surge of U.S. forces to com­bat sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence un­leashed by the U.S.-led in­va­sion to top­ple dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein.

Trump spoke on the phone with the prime min­is­ter, but the White House said se­cu­rity con­cerns and the short no­tice of the trip pre­vented the pres­i­dent from meet­ing him face-to-face.

The prime min­is­ter’s of­fice said “dif­fer­ences in points of view over the ar­range­ments” pre­vented the two from meet­ing but they dis­cussed se­cu­rity is­sues and Trump’s or­der to with­draw U.S. troops from Syria over the phone. Ab­dul-Mahdi’s of­fice also did not say whether he had ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion to the White House. But White House press sec­re­tary Sarah Sanders told re­porters on the flight back that the Iraqi leader had agreed to visit Wash­ing­ton.

Trump said that after U.S. troops in Syria re­turn home, Iraq could still be used to stage at­tacks on IS mil­i­tants.

“We can use this as a base if we wanted to do some­thing in Syria,” he said. “If we see some­thing hap­pen­ing with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard” that they “re­ally won’t know what the hell hap­pened.”

Trump said it’s time to leave Syria be­cause the U.S. should not be in­volved in na­tion-build­ing, and that other wealthy na­tions should shoul­der the cost of re­build­ing Syria. He also said Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan has agreed to bat­tle “any rem­nants of ISIS” in Syria, which shares a bor­der with Tur­key.

“The na­tions of the re­gions must step up and take more re­spon­si­bil­ity for their fu­ture,” Trump said, promis­ing a “strong de­lib­er­ate and or­derly with­drawal” of forces from Syria.

Trump had faced crit­i­cism for not yet vis­it­ing U.S. troops sta­tioned in harm’s way as he comes up on his two-year mark in of­fice.

He told the As­so­ci­ated Press in Oc­to­ber that he “will do that at some point, but I don’t think it’s overly nec­es­sary.

Trump told re­porters that he had planned to make the trip three or four weeks ago, but word of the trip started get­ting out and forced him to post­pone it.

Iraqi lead­ers de­clared an end to com­bat op­er­a­tions against IS a year ago but the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal, mil­i­tary and eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion re­mains uncer­tain. It con­tin­ues to ex­pe­ri­ence spo­radic bomb­ings, kid­nap­pings and as­sas­si­na­tions, which most peo­ple at­tribute to IS.

Trump had planned to spend Christ­mas at his pri­vate club in Florida, but stayed be­hind in Wash­ing­ton due to the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down.

‘‘

WE’RE NO LONGER THE SUCK­ERS, FOLKS. WE’RE RE­SPECTED AGAIN AS A NA­TION. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, in speak­ing to Amer­i­can troops in Iraq

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and first lady Me­la­nia Trump greet mem­bers of the mil­i­tary at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, dur­ing an unan­nounced visit Wed­nes­day. In a speech to the troops, Trump de­fended his de­ci­sion to with­draw forces from neigh­bor­ing Syria.

AL DRAGO NYT

Mil­i­tary per­son­nel cheer dur­ing Pres­i­dent Trump’s first visit to troops sta­tioned abroad in a com­bat zone. Trump said he has “no plans at all” to re­move U.S. troops from the coun­try.

AN­DREW HARNIK AP

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and first lady Me­la­nia Trump talk with troops at a din­ing hall at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on Wed­nes­day.

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