Yesterday, the future status of U.S. forces in Iraq was plunged into confusion by a withdrawal announcement that may or may not have been intentionally sent. Today, the story somehow got even more ridiculous.
To recap, on Monday the Iraqi prime minister’s office circulated a letter from the commander of U.S. forces in the country indicating that those forces would be repositioned in preparation for “onward movement” in response to a recent Iraqi Parliament vote calling for their removal. The U.S. military confirmed the letter was real and it was generally interpreted as statement of intent to remove the troops.
But back in Washington, things got complicated. After some initial suggestion from the Pentagon that the letter was a fake and potentially an Iranian intelligence operation, senior officials then settled on the line that the letter was real, but they had not meant to send it —an “honest mistake” in the words of Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley. The line the Pentagon is going with is that it was a “poorly worded” draft that meant to suggest the repositioning of U.S. troops rather than their withdrawal, and as CNN puts it, it was “shared with the Iraqi military for the purposes of coordination and was never sent as a formal memorandum.” Someone in the Iraqi military seems to have shared it with the prime minister’s office.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is not having it, though. As the Washington Post reports, Mahdi is interpreting the letter as a “withdrawal announcement” and is now asking Washington for a timetable on removing troops. Asked about the Pentagon’s disavowal of the letter, an Iraqi official replied, in an impressive display of bureaucratic literalism, “We don’t deal with statements [made] in the media. … As a state, we deal with the official letters that we receive, and we will act in accordance with this letter.”
Mahdi’s office says it received two different versions of the letter—one which the prime minister deemed to be an inaccurate Arabic translation after comparing it to the English version, and a second corrected translation.
If this is true, it contradicts the Pentagon’s line that the letter was an “accident” that was never supposed to be shared with the prime minister. If he got a second draft after requesting corrections, that sounds pretty deliberate!
What’s less clear is whether the letter—intentionally sent or not—actually was a “withdrawal announcement.” All it says is that the U.S. will be “repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement.” (Maybe that makes more sense in Arabic?)
Trump hasn’t spoken publicly about all this, but an official told CNN that he was “concerned” and “wanted it cleared up.” This kind of confusion isn’t entirely unprecedented for his administration. Back in 2017, White House officials told the press that a naval carrier group was headed toward North Korea as a show of force when it was actually heading in the opposite direction. It probably says something that U.S. troops are deployed in so many places around the world that occasionally we lose track of them.
It does seem unlikely that the U.S. would want to remove troops from Iraq now, as it is building up its forces throughout the region for a potential conflict with neighboring Iran, and the vote by Iraq’s caretaker government is not considered legally enforceable by most observers. But if it wasn’t a withdrawal announcement, why did it reference the recent Parliament vote and state, “We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure”?
So what we have here is a letter that may or may not have constituted a withdrawal announcement and may or may not have been deliberately sent in response to an Iraqi government order that may or may not have been legally binding. Hell of a way to run a war.