AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq — President Donald Trump made a surprise visit Wednesday to U.S. troops in Iraq, his first trip to a conflict zone nearly two years into his presidency and days after announcing a pullout of American troops from neighboring Syria.
Trump was looking for some positive headlines after several days of turmoil over his decisions to withdraw the 2,000 troops in Syria, pull out half of the 14,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan and oust Defense Secretary James Mattis two months earlier than the Pentagon leader planned for criticizing his policies.
Accompanied by first lady Melania Trump and speaking at the Al Asad Air Base west of Baghdad, Trump defended the withdrawal from Syria and said it was made possible by the defeat of Islamic State militants.
“Our presence in Syria was not open-ended and it was never intended to be permanent,” he said, wearing camouflage fatigues in a hangar at the base. He said some troops “can now return home to their families.”
Many Republican and Democratic lawmakers have heaped scorn on Trump over his Syria policy, saying the fight against Islamic State is far from over and the withdrawal leaves allies in a lurch.
One of those critics was Mattis, who wrote in a candid resignation letter last week that his views did not align with Trump’s, particularly on the treatment of allies.
Mattis had planned to leave at the end of February but Trump forced him to go by this Tuesday after his resignation letter became public.
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Trump also has drawn fire from some in the military for not having visited troops in conflict zones since taking office in January 2017 — particularly after he canceled a trip to a World War I cemetery in France last month due to rain.
While there has been no full-scale violence in Iraq since the Islamic State suffered a series of defeats last year, some 5,200 U.S. troops train and advise Iraqi forces still waging a campaign against the militants.
Trump spent more than three hours in Iraq. He planned to visit troops at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on his way back home.
Trump was supposed to meet with Iraq Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi but they spoke only by telephone.
Abdul Mahdi’s office said there was “a disagreement over how to conduct the meeting.” Iraqi lawmakers said the prime minister had declined Trump’s request to meet him at the base.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the meeting was canceled due to security concerns and short notice of the trip. But she said they had a “great call” and that Abdul Mahdi accepted Trump’s invitation to the White House in the New Year.
The unannounced visit the day after Christmas followed in the footsteps of two of Trump’s predecessors, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama, who both made surprise trips to see troops.
For security reasons, the visits usually are kept secret until after the president arrives. A small group of aides and Secret Service agents, and a pool of reporters, were with the Trumps on the overnight flight from Washington.
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While in Iraq, Trump also spoke to military commanders and the U.S. ambassador. Sanders said they “came up with a powerful plan that will allow us to continue our path to total victory” over Islamic State. Unlike with Syria, Trump said he had no plans to withdraw from Iraq.
Trump has wanted to end protracted U.S. involvement in overseas conflicts, and to force allies to pay more of the costs that he says fall disproportionately on American taxpayers, a point he made again Wednesday.
Trump spoke to troops gathered in a dining hall festooned with holiday decorations and teased soldiers about their favorite football teams.
To reporters, he lamented the wear and tear of overseas conflicts.
“It’s time to get our young people out,” Trump said. “And I’ve been signing plenty of letters and I don’t like sending those letters home to parents saying that your young man or your young woman has been killed.”