TRUMP Makes SURPRISE CHRISTMAS VISIT To TROOPS
President Donald Trump and the first lady quietly swept into Iraq Wednesday to pay a holiday visit to US troops, at last making good on the President’s promise to travel to one of the war zones he has derided as costly blunders.
After a secret overnight flight from Washington, the President and Melania Trump touched down onto a darkened air strip at Al Asad Air Base west of Baghdad, the dicey security situation still restricting Trump to a clandestine visit more than 15 years after the American invasion.
He remained on the ground for about three hours, greeting enthusiastic selfie-taking servicemen and women in their dining hall. Photos from the ground showed Trump in a black overcoat and red tie, posing for a picture with troops in fatigues. Melania Trump stood smiling next to him, wearing a mustard-colored blouse.
The trip, shrouded in secrecy, came in the midst of a partial government shutdown and less than a week after Mr. Trump disrupted America’s military status quo and infuriated even some of his staunchest political allies by announcing plans to withdraw all troops from Syria and about half of those stationed in Afghanistan. The president’s decision on Syria, made over the objections of American military generals and civilian advisers, led to the resignation of Mr. Trump’s defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and fueled tensions within the national security establishment.
The place Mr. Trump chose to visit is the one theater of war where he has not promised a rapid drawdown of forces — and it is where he claims his greatest military victory, the defeat of the Islamic State in Mosul, the Iraqi city where the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the beginning of its self-proclaimed caliphate. The assault on Mosul by Iraqi forces, backed by Americans, began under President Barack Obama but culminated in the summer of 2017 under Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump told reporters on the ground at Joint Base al Asad that he has no plans to withdraw troops from Iraq. Instead, he said, America may use Iraq as a military base to carry out operations on Syria and fight the Islamic State.
“If we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard they really won’t know what the hell happened,” Mr. Trump said, according to Bloomberg News. “We’ve knocked them silly.”
Mr. Trump’s statement reflects one of the strategies proposed by the Pentagon after he announced his decision to withdraw troops from Syria last week. With British and French forces still on the ground, American commandos would be based in Iraq on the border where they could launch raids and other missions into Syria.
The Iraqi government declared an end to combat operations against the Islamic State in Iraq earlier this year, though there have been sporadic airstrikes in parts of the country where small groups of the militants have reappeared.
According to one American official, these fighters are no longer trying to hold territory like the militant group did in 2014, but act more as an insurgent groups bent on smaller-scale attacks.
At its height, the group controlled an amount of territory the size of Britain that stretched between Iraq and Syria. Now they hold less than 20 miles of ground near the Syrian town of Hajin.
Most of the fighting has been relegated to Syria, and the roughly 5,000 American troops in Iraq are largely assigned to training the Iraqi military and police. There have been no American combat deaths in Iraq this year, but in March an Air Force helicopter crashed near the city of al Qaim, killing all seven aboard, after it ran into electrical wires. That same month, Master Sgt. Jonathan J. Dunbar, an elite Army commando, was killed by a roadside bomb in Syria, marking the second American combat death in the country since ground troops were sent there in 2015.
Mr. Trump, who was accompanied by his wife, Melania Trump, was expected to make two stops on his post-Christmas trip, delivering a holiday message to the more than 5,000 American forces stationed in the country.
“President Trump and the First Lady traveled to Iraq late on Christmas night to visit with our troops and Senior Military leadership to thank them for their service, their success, and their sacrifice and to wish them a Merry Christmas,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, said in a tweet.
A decade-and-a-half after the start of the US war, which has cost nearly 5,000 American troops their lives, Iraq remains a dangerous place.
The American-led invasion in 2003 toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but for several years afterward US troops engaged in extended fighting across the country, battling an insurgency and later sectarian violence. At their peak, US troop levels in Iraq stood near 166,000. After the combat mission ended in 2010, some troops remained behind to help stabilize the country.
Thousands more returned four years later to battle ISIS. Iraq formally declared victory against the terror group a year ago, but US
troops have remained to help stabilize regions of the country and train Iraqi soldiers.
Trump criticized his predecessor, Obama, for withdrawing troops too quickly from Iraq, claiming it allowed for ISIS’ rise. Obama’s administration was unable to strike a deal with the Iraqi government to allow for a residual US force to maintain stability in the country. But in bringing troops home and declaring a formal end to the Iraq War, Obama fulfilled a pledge to voters to end a war that began under Bush.
Trump now finds himself eager to make good on his own promises to wind down US involvement overseas. That’s what has driven his recent decisions to take US troops out of Syria and Afghanistan.
But those decisions have been unpopular among even his own national security team, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned last week. He was followed out the exit by Brett McGurk, the US special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition who Trump claims not to know.
They and other officials warned Trump that leaving the region now would allow for ISIS, or another terror group, to regain a foothold. But the President was insistent that the time had come for US personnel to come home.
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