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Esper says US has not made any decision to leave Iraq

A soldier sat atop a US military vehicle that was part of a convoy arriving from northern Iraq toward the northeastern region of Syria.
A soldier sat atop a US military vehicle that was part of a convoy arriving from northern Iraq toward the northeastern region of Syria.DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images/File 2019

BEIRUT — Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that the United States has not made any decision to leave Iraq, shortly after the US military said in a letter to Iraqi officials that US forces would be relocating ‘‘to prepare for onward movement.’’

On Sunday, Iraqi lawmakers passed a nonbinding resolution calling for foreign troops to withdraw.

In the letter, released Monday, Marine Corps Brigadier General William Seely said that US forces ‘‘respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.’’ A US military official confirmed the letter’s authenticity.

But in a day of confusion, Esper said at the Pentagon that he could not confirm the authenticity of the letter because he had seen it only after it had been leaked. He said the letter ‘‘is inconsistent with where we are right now.’’

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General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the letter ‘‘was a draft, it was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should not have been released.’’

Part of the letter was ‘‘poorly worded, implies withdrawal,’’ Milley said. ‘‘That is not what’s happening.’’

Asked whether the US military was prepared to strike Iranian cultural sites, as President Trump has suggested, Esper said the military would ‘‘follow the laws of armed conflict.’’ Asked whether that means no, because international law prohibits targeting such sites during war, Esper said: ‘‘That’s the laws of armed conflict.’’

Esper said the United States remains prepared for any contingency with regard to Iran, and that the message to Tehran is that the ‘‘ball remains in their court.’’

Meanwhile, the US Defense Department has ordered an amphibious force of about 4,500 sailors and Marines to prepare to support Middle East operations, a defense official said Monday. The order was disclosed as huge throngs of Iranians mourned Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, who led the elite Quds force, at his funeral Monday in Tehran. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, wept as he prayed over the general’s coffin, while he and other Iranian leaders vowed revenge.

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Caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi told US Ambassador Matthew Tueller that the United States and Iraq needed to cooperate ‘‘to implement the withdrawal of foreign forces in accordance with the decision of the Iraqi parliament,’’ according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.

US senators are expected to be briefed by top US officials Wednesday on the US drone strike that killed Soleimani last week, according to three people familiar with the plans.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Esper, Milley, and CIA Director Gina Haspel are expected to brief the lawmakers. House members are also expected to attend a separate briefing session, people familiar with the matter said.

Soleimani was not seen as a hero only in Iran, but was also by Iranian-allied groups in the region — including in Yemen and Lebanon.

Yemen’s city of Saada, held by the Iran-allied Houthis, exploded with mourners filling the streets and protesting the strike that killed him. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a military group that also holds seats in parliament, held a funeral for Soleimani on Sunday.

On the diplomatic front, at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Moscow Saturday with plans to discuss escalating tensions in the Middle East, the Kremlin announced.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is accompanying Merkel on the trip. Maas said Monday that Trump threatening Iraq with heavy sanctions if US troops are forced to leave is ‘‘not very helpful.’’

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Russia has been even more critical of the US airstrike that killed Soleimani. Its Foreign Ministry denounced the move as ‘‘reckless’’ on Friday, though Putin himself has been publicly mum on the issue with the country still enjoying its New Year’s holidays.

Moscow has quietly benefited from Soleimani’s death with oil prices spiking. Now Putin will weigh in on the state of the Middle East twice this week, when he meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul Wednesday and then with Merkel over the weekend.

China on Monday heavily criticized the Soleimani killing as a violation of international norms and said it would work with Russia to ‘‘maintain international justice.’’

China, which has increasingly close military ties with Moscow, has long sought a neutral position in the Middle East, with friendly relations with Iran, Israel, and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

European Union foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting on Friday in Brussels to discuss how to respond to the escalating crisis with Iran, diplomats said Monday, including whether Europe starts the process that could lead to the eventual reimposition of sanctions on Iran.

In Washington, D.C., Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said the House should hold open hearings on the escalating tensions between the United States and Iran.

‘‘I think there should be open hearings on this subject,’’ Schiff told Greg Sargent, an opinions writer for The Washington Post. ‘‘The president has put us on a path where we may be at war with Iran. That requires the Congress to fully engage.’’

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