US President Donald Trump on Wednesday used a lightning visit to Iraq — his first with US troops in a conflict zone since being elected — to defend a withdrawal from Syria and declare an end to the US’ role as the global “policeman.”
Trump landed at 7:16pm at Ayn al-Asad Air Base accompanied by his wife, Melania, following what he called a stressful flight on a “pitch black” Air Force One.
Trump spoke to about 100 primarily special forces personnel and separately with military leaders before leaving three hours later.
A planned meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi was scrapped and replaced by a telephone call, Abdel Mahdi’s office said.
During the call, Trump invited Abdel Mahdi to visit Washington and he accepted, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
Speculation had been mounting that Trump would finally make the gesture following his controversial plan to slash troop levels in Afghanistan and his order to withdraw entirely from Syria.
At the base, Trump sought to defend his “America first” policy of pulling back from multinational alliances.
“It’s not fair when the burden is all on us,” he said. “We don’t want to be taken advantage of anymore by countries that use us and use our incredible military to protect them.”
Trump told reporters he had overruled generals asking to extend the Syria deployment, where about 2,000 US forces, joined by other foreign troops, assist local fighters battling the Islamic State group.
Trump on Wednesday said “we’ve knocked them out,” although he added that Iraq might be used as a future base “if we wanted to do something in Syria.”
According to a transcript released by the White House, he thanked troops for the “near-elimination” of the Islamic State group and said “we’ll be watching ... very, very closely — the remnants” of the group.
While highlighting the military and financial roles he said Turkey and Saudi Arabia had agreed to play in Syria, Trump also told journalists that “we may go back and help.”
The Iraq trip provided some distraction from a rising tide of domestic political problems, including a government shutdown caused by Trump’s row with the US Congress over funding for a US-Mexico border wall.
Trump on Wednesday said he was prepared to wait as long as it takes to get US$5 billion from taxpayers for the wall
After departing for the US, Trump stopped over at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where he and Melania shook hands and greeted some of the hundreds of troops gathered in a hangar.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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