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WASHINGTON/ BAGHDAD: The United States has no plans to pull out militarily from Iraq, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told the Pentagon reporters on Monday, following reports a US military letter about preparation for a withdrawal, foreign media reported.
"There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq," Esper said, when asked about the letter, adding there had also been no plans issued to prepare to leave. "I don’t know what that letter is ... We're trying to find out where that’s coming from, what that is. But there’s been no decision made to leave Iraq. Period."
Esper added the United States was still committed to countering ISIL in Iraq, alongside US allies and partners. The letter, cited by news agency was purportedly sent to the Iraqi military by US Marine Corps Brigadier General William H Seely III, commanding general of Task Force Iraq, the US-led military coalition against ISIL.
The United States Central Command (Centcom) did not immediately respond to request for comment. A US defense official and an Iraqi defence official confirmed the letter was real and had been delivered, AFP reported prior to Esper's comments.
Reuters also reportedthat an Iraqi military source said the letter was authentic. The US military said in the letter that it was preparing for "movement out of Iraq," a day after the Iraqi parliament urged the government oust foreign troops.
The letter said the US-led coalition in Iraq would "be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement".
"In order to conduct this task, Coalition Forces are required to take certain measures to ensure that the movement out of Iraq is conducted in a safe and efficient manner," said the letter, dated Monday, reports the international media. As the letter was signed by a US official, it was not immediately clear whether it applied to forces from the 76 countries which make up the international coalition.
Some 5,200 US soldiers are stationed across Iraqi bases to support local troops preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State group. On Monday, Iraqi Premier Adel Abdel Mahdi met with the US Ambassador Matthew Tueller, telling him it was "necessary to work together to withdraw foreign forces from Iraq".
Earlier, President Donald Trump threatened to impose deep sanctions on Iraq if it moved to expel US troops and said he would not withdraw entirely unless the military was compensated for the "extraordinarily expensive air base" there.
Trump's remarks came on the same day that Iraq's Parliament voted to support expelling the US military from its country over mounting anger about a drone strike the president ordered last week that killed Iran's Qasem Soleimani and earlier US airstrikes in the country. The vote was nonbinding.
"We've spent a lot of money in Iraq," Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One as he returned to Washington after spending the holidays at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago.
"We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. ... We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it." The president added that if Iraqi officials try to kick the United States out the country it would not leave on a "very friendly basis." The US invasion of Iraq took place in 2003.
"We will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever," Trump said. "It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame."
Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi told lawmakers that a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops, including those from the US, was required "for the sake of our national sovereignty." About 5,000 American troops are in various parts of Iraq.
Mahdi described the strike authorised by Trump as a "political assassination" and said it was "time for American troops to leave."
Withdrawing US troops from the Middle East has been a central component of Trump's foreign policy; however, he has been forced to deploy additional soldiers to region to respond to several crises.
"So with Iraq, I told you, Iraq, was the worst decision, going into the Middle East was the worst decision ever made in the history of our country," Trump told reporters. "But we went in and we're there and we're pulling out, pulling out of a lot of different areas."
Trump did not specify which air base he was referring to, but the president flew into Al Asad Air Base during a surprise visit with troops there in 2018.
Iraq has been caught in the middle of increasing tensions between Washington and Iran. The US Embassy in Iraq was the site of violent protests last week following a series of US airstrikes ordered in retaliation for the death of an American civilian contractor killed in a rocket attack last month.
Those tensions were further inflamed by the killing of Soleimani near the airport in Baghdad. Iran has promised retaliation and Iraq has said the U.S. attacks violate their sovereignty.
Trump also reiterated a threat to target Iranian cultural sites if Tehran launches an attack in retaliation for Soleimani. The president has said a US response to such an attack could be "disproportionate."
Trump threatened "major retaliation" if Iran avenged the killing of a key military commander. The threat came as Iran announced it was further reducing compliance with a tattered international nuclear accord, ending limitations on numbers of centrifuges used to enrich uranium. The latest blow to the accord, which was meant to ensure Iran did not develop a nuclear weapon under cover of its nuclear industry, deepened the regional crisis set off by Friday´s killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.
Trump had already threatened bombing of 52 unspecified targets in Iran if Tehran attacks US troops and interests in the region. In his latest comments, he was adamant that targets could include places of cultural significance in a country boasting an ancient heritage and two dozen UNESCO-listed sites.
"They´re allowed to kill our people," a defiant Trump said. "They´re allowed to torture and maim our people. They´re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we´re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn´t work that way."
Trump thumbed his nose at critics angered at being kept in the dark over the US killing of Iranian general, saying he didn´t need Congressional approval -- even for a "disproportionate" strike.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been leading the backlash against Trump´s decision to authorize a drone strike against Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, an operation that Trump only officially informed Congress about on Saturday -- nearly 48 hours after the event.
Two Democratic lawmakers announced on Sunday that they would introduce a new resolution before the House of Representatives that they said would prevent Trump from unilaterally leading the United States into a war against Iran.
But a defiant Trump made light of the calls for him to get Congressional approval in any future military action, saying such notice was "not required" -- and then saying his tweet would serve as prior notification if he did decide to strike against Iran again.
"These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any US person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner," Trump wrote.
"Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!" While previous administrations have tried to garner bipartisan support for significant military operations by briefing opponents beforehand, neither Pelosi nor the top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, were told in advance about the targeting of Soleimani.
A furious Pelosi said what she called "this initiation of hostilities" was taken "without the consultation of the Congress and without the articulation of a clear and legitimate strategy to either the Congress or the public."
"As Speaker of the House, I reiterate my call on the Administration for an immediate, comprehensive briefing of the full Congress on military engagement related to Iran and next steps under consideration," she said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Monday warned President Donald Trump to "never threaten the Iranian nation", after he issued a US strike list of 52 targets in the Islamic republic.
"Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655 Never threaten the Iranian nation," he tweeted, referring to 290 lives lost in July 1988 when a US warship shot down a passenger plane Iran Air 655 in the Gulf.
Trump warned Saturday that Washington had lined up 52 targets in Iran if it attacked American personnel or assets in retaliation for a US drone strike in Baghdad that killed Iran´s top commander Qasem Soleimani.
He said 52 represented the number of Americans held hostage at the US embassy in Tehran for more than a year starting in late 1979.
Trump said some of these sites are "at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD."
In a related development, the UN´s cultural agency Monday said both Iran and the United States must observe a convention obliging states to preserve cultural sites.
Unesco director general Audrey Azoulay highlighted that both Tehran and Washington had signed a 1972 convention prohibiting states from taking "any deliberate measures which might damage directly or indirectly the cultural and natural heritage" of other states.
At a meeting with the Iranian ambassador to the Paris-based organisation, Azoulay said that both countries had signed a 1954 convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict, UNESCO said.
Azoulay "stressed the universality of cultural and natural heritage as vectors of peace and dialogue between peoples, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve for future generations".
In Tehran, where mourners formed a sea of black, dotted with red Shiite flags and white signs, in what state television said was a "several million-strong" turnout.
As they marched down a main artery of the Iranian capital, the mourners chanted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel".
Khamenei appeared to cry as he prayed over the flag-draped coffins containing the remains of Soleimani and five other "martyrs" killed in the strike.
He was flanked by President Hassan Rouhani and other top political and military figures as well as Soleimani´s son and the slain general´s replacement as Quds commander, Esmail Qaani.
"We must give a crushing response," a 61-year-old named Afkhami told AFP. "We must target whatever military base they have in the region."
Soleimani’s daughter Zeinab and the leader of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, Ismail Haniya, also delivered emotional speeches.
Zeinab said: "Stupid Trump -- a symbol of stupidity and a toy in the hand of Zionism -- don´t think that with the martyrdom of my father everything is over."
The procession later made its way to Tehran´s vast Azadi Square, before Soleimani´s remains were flown to the holy city of Qom for a ceremony.