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Pentagon Chief Says There Is No Plan For U.S. Forces To Leave Iraq

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So there has been no decision to leave Iraq, period. Those are the words of the U.S. defense secretary, Mark Esper, speaking yesterday. This comes after the Iraqi parliament voted to push out all foreign forces from the country after the U.S. killing of Iran's top general in Baghdad. We've got NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman with us to take up that angle. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So there are apparently mixed messages coming from the Pentagon. I want to work through this with you. The Iraqi parliament holds this vote on this resolution, saying all foreign forces got to go. Then U.S. military officials send a letter saying, OK, we respect your decision. And we're going to reposition troops with the intent of moving them out. And then the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff say, no, no, no, no, that was a mistake? How does that happen?

BOWMAN: Well, that's right. Well, let's start with the draft letter. It was written by Brig. Gen. General William Seely to the Iraqi government. It was dated yesterday and not signed. And the letter basically says U.S. forces would be repositioned inside the country with preparation to leave the country - use the term onward movement out of Iraq. And it ended by saying the U.S. respects the will of Iraq. So it indicated the troops would leave because of the Iraqi parliament's decision. But Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley said it was a mistake, this letter and poorly worded and, again, a draft. The letter was leaked and caused a lot of confusion in the press and on social media and also at the Pentagon because there was officials running around with a copy of the letter. Neither Esper nor Milley had read it. They came down to see the press, and then General Milley came down later and reiterated, hey, this is a mistake. We're not leaving, at least not yet.

MARTIN: So where - what is happening? Because we know that U.S. troops are being moved around inside Iraq as a result, presumably, of this Iraqi parliament vote. Where are they going?

BOWMAN: Well, some are being repositioned within the country. They're moving from a base in Baghdad to a more secure position. Some are moving within the country. Some are moving in and out of Kuwait. And again, some troops are coming in to protect the troops already there. They've suspended training of Iraqi forces. They've suspended the anti-ISIS fight. And basically, the U.S. troops are just hunkering down. But again, they say there's no decision at this point from the U.S. perspective to actually have all 5,000 troops leave the country.

MARTIN: All right. I guess we have to wait and see. NPR's Tom Bowman reporting on those latest machinations of the U.S. military in Iraq. Bowman, we appreciate it.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.