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Esper visits Iraq as US troops withdraw from Syria

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper meets with U.S. Army Patriot missile specialists during a visit to Prince Sultan Air Base in Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 22, 2019. (DoD photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has traveled to Baghdad for talks with Iraqi officials as the United States withdraws troops from northeastern Syria through Iraq.

Following a meeting with Esper on October 23, Iraqi Defense Minister Najah al-Shammari told AP that U.S. forces withdrawing from Syria to Iraq will leave his country within four weeks.

Shammari said the U.S. troops were “transiting” in Iraq and will then head either to Kuwait, Qatar, or the United States.

Esper’s previously unannounced trip to the Iraqi capital comes a day after the country’s military said U.S. troops leaving Syria didn’t have permission to stay in Iraq.

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“All of the U.S. troops who have withdrawn from Syria have obtained authorization to enter Iraqi Kurdistan in order to leave Iraq,” Iraq’s high command said.

On October 22 in Saudi Arabia, Esper said the redeploying troops would stay in Iraq “temporarily” before returning to the United States.

The Pentagon chief had initially told reporters that all U.S. troops leaving Syria would go to western Iraq and that they would continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

The United States has some 5,200 troops in Iraq, part of a U.S.-led international coalition against the IS group.

President Donald Trump decided earlier this month to pull all 1,000 U.S. troops out of northwestern Syria.

But the Pentagon later said Washington was considering keeping some forces there to help ensure IS militants and others do not profit from oil fields in the region.