Baghdad: US President Donald Trump along with First Lady Melania Trump paid a surprise Christmas visit to American troops in Iraq, where he defended his move to withdraw forces from Syria and declared that the Islamic State is “very nearly defeated”.
It was Trump’s first visit to a conflict zone as Commander-in-Chief and came after months of public pressure on him to spend time with troops deployed to conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia. “They (the Trumps) travelled there late on Christmas night to thank troops for their service,” the White House said.
The President touched down at the joint US-Iraqi base west of Baghdad after a secret flight from Washington on Wednesday. The US’ National Security Adviser John Bolton also accompanied the Trumps, the Washington Post reported.
Speaking to troops at Al Asad Air Base alongside wife Melania Trump, the President said that he had no plans to pull out troops from Iraq, which he said the US could use as a staging ground in the heart of the Middle East from which to combat Iran, or re-enter Syria.
The US still has some 5,000 troops in Iraq to support the government in its fight against what remains of the Islamic State group.
Less than a week ago, Trump disrupted the military status quo and angered some of his political allies by announcing plans to withdraw all troops from Syria and about half from Afghanistan.
His decision on Syria led to the resignation of Defence Secretary Jim Mattis.
The President defended his move in Syria while addressing the troops. “We’re no longer the suckers, folks. Our presence in Syria was not open-ended and it was never intended to be permanent,” he said.
“I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip IS of its military strongholds… Eight years ago, we went there for three months, and we never left.
“Now, we’re doing it right and we’re going to finish it off,” Trump said.
He warned that he was committed to withdrawing troops from foreign wars even when his administration’s experts object. “The US cannot continue to be the policeman of the world. It’s not fair when the burden is all on us.”
Trump was also scheduled to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, but a face-to-face meeting was cancelled for security and logistical reasons, so the two men spoke by phone, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said.
During the call, Trump invited Mahdi to visit the White House and he accepted, she added.
However, Trump’s trip was not universally applauded among members of the Iraqi Parliament.
“America has had a negative impact on Iraq through its interventions,” said Ghayib al-Amayri, a member of a powerful parliamentary alliance aligned with Mouqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist Shia cleric. “We are against the policy of Trump and against any intervention in Iraqi affairs.”
Trump later headed to Germany, where he and his wife met service members early Thursday at Ramstein Air Base.