Trump makes surprise visit to US troops in Iraq, defends Syria pullout plan, doesn't meet Iraqi leaders

Trump makes surprise visit to US troops in Iraq, defends Syria pullout plan, doesn't meet Iraqi leaders

ISLAMABAD: US President Donald Trump made an unannounced trip to Iraq, his first visit to American troops in a combat zone as president, and he left Baghdad without even meeting the Iraqi leadership because of disagreement over the venue for the get together.

Trump, whose brief trip took place amid roiling criticism of his national security strategy, delivered a speech to roughly 100 uniformed service members at an air base west of Baghdad, and later defended his decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, which angered many of his allies, according to American media reports.

“The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world,” Trump told reporters traveling with him. “We don’t want to be taken advantage of any more by countries that use us and use our incredible military to protect them.”

He said that the U.S. could use Iraq as a regional launching pad to carry out operations against ISIS/Da'esh, a fight his own party members accused him of undermining by his decision earlier this month to pull out of Syria.
“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,” Trump said.

Diplomatic observers expressed surprise that Trump did not meet any Iraqi leader during his three-hour stay. A scheduled meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was scrapped and the two leaders talked instead by telephone, according to media reports.
Abdul Mahdi's office said in a statement that US authorities had informed Iraq's leadership of the president's visit in advance, and the Iraqi prime minister and US president held a phone conversation due to a "disagreement over how to conduct the meeting".

Iraqi legislators said that the two leaders had disagreed over where their planned meeting should take place: Trump had asked to meet at the Ain al-Asad military base, where he had landed, an offer which Abdul Mahdi declined.
The trip came during a tense time for Trump and his national security officials, who have been critical of the president's decision to abruptly withdraw troops from Syria, drawdown the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and push out widely respected Defence Secretary James Mattis.
Trump has not called for a swift troop withdrawal in Iraq.

More than 5,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in the country in support roles for Iraqi forces fighting the remnants of ISIS/D'esh, a militant group that Trump declared defeated in Syria even though U.S. officials say it still poses a threat there and across the Middle East.

Trump's trip to Iraq began when the presidential plane -- Air Force One -- left just after midnight from Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, D.C. The jet landed under the cover of darkness on Wednesday at the Al Asad Airbase.

The White House was eerily quiet before Trump's visit was made public.

Trump did not tweet on Wednesday after spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day tweeting messages from his account.

The president canceled a Christmas visit to his Mar-a-Lago resort in South Florida and stayed in Washington due to the partial government shutdown that began Saturday. The Senate is not expected to reconvene until Thursday, giving Trump a window to make the troop visit.

The funding impasse causing the shutdown was triggered by Trump’s demand for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border aimed at stopping illegal migration, adding to the sense of chaos surrounding the president ahead of the visit.

Trump addressed the shutdown controversy, saying he would not budge on his request for billions of dollars to build the wall.

“Whatever it takes. We need a wall. We need safety for our country,” he said.

In addition, Trump has been raging against his handpicked Federal Reserve chairman in response to the stock market’s slide, which economists have attributed to instability in the White House.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump also used the trip to deliver holiday greetings to service members in Iraq, where the U.S. has kept a sustained military presence since the 2003 invasion launched by former President George W. Bush.
The first couple spent time speaking with service members and posing for selfies after the president received a briefing from military and diplomatic personnel.

The president signed several red “Make America Great Again” hats service members had brought as well as a “Trump 2020” patch, a move criticized by opposition US politicians for trying to politicize the country's armed forces.
Presidential travel to overseas combat zones is typically shrouded in secrecy for security reasons. Reporters agreed to keep details of the visit under wraps until the president was done talking to the troops.White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed the visit in a Twitter post on Wednesday afternoon.

Trump had come under intense criticism for not visiting U.S. troops fighting overseas, even though he speaks frequently about his support for the military.
Before heading to Florida for the American Thanksgiving holiday, Trump vowed he would visit troops, but did not specify a date or specific location.
“I'm going to a war zone,” the president told reporters at the time.

Trump on Wednesday appeared to concede his personal safety was one thing that kept him from visiting combat zones.
“I had concerns about the institution of the presidency. Not for myself personally. I had concerns for the first lady, I will tell you,” he told reporters. “So did I have a concern? Yes I had a concern.”
Trump also said previous attempted visits were cancelled for “security reasons” because “people were finding out” he was planning to go.

Such combat-zone trips are customary for presidents in the post-9/11 era. Bush and former President Barack Obama both made multiple unannounced visits to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan during their eight years each in office.
But winding down U.S. involvement in foreign wars has been a signature issue of Trump's presidency, making it unclear about whether he would visit a combat zone.

“We are spread out all over the world. We are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous,” Trump told reporters in Iraq.