WASHINGTON — A letter by a top U.S. Marine general in Iraq saying U.S. forces were repositioning for possible withdrawal from that country was sent in error, sowing deeper confusion about the next Pentagon steps in the wake of the strike that killed a top Iranian military leader.
It also raised concerns among allies as to whether the Pentagon is becoming the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.
The confusion came as it was announced that the Defense Department’s chief of staff, Eric Chewning, was resigning. He is the seventh high-ranking Pentagon official to resign since December 1.
The letter, including a version with an Arabic translation on Defense Department letterhead, said NATO and coalition troops are being sent to a safer place than the base in the green zone in advance of a possible withdrawal from Iraq, in line with a withdrawal request from Baghdad.
Meeting with Pentagon reporters, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the letter was “inconsistent” with the current Pentagon policy. Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair, confirmed the letter was real but “is a draft, it was a mistake, it should not have been released.
“Now it’s a kerfuffle,” Milley said.
In the letter, first published by the Washington Post, U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General William H. Seely III, head of the U.S. Task Force-Iraq, said the U.S.-led coalition “will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement.”
He wrote that “certain measures” would be undertaken to “ensure that the movement out of Iraq is conducted in a safe and efficient manner.” Such movement, he said, would be done at night and involve “appropriate measures to minimize and mitigate the disturbance to the public.”
Seely also wrote that “As we begin implementing this next phase of operations, I want to reiterate the value of our friendship and partnership. We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure” – a sharp contrast to President Donald Trump’s recent threats of “very big sanctions” on Iraq if it tied to expel U.S. troops, who he said he would not withdraw unless Baghdad paid for their joint airbase that “cost billions of dollars to build.”
Esper also took a different approach that the president in regards to attacking Iranian cultural sites, something Trump has threatened.
“We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Esper said. Asked if that meant no targeting of cultural sites, which is considered a war crime, Esper “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”
The latest confusions come days after Pentagon leaders decided to offer up the option to kill Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani to President Trump as a way to make their other options look better.
However, Trump chose that option. That resulted in Soleimani and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces deputy leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis killed in a drone strike last Thursday near Baghdad International Airport.