In the letter to Iraq’s Ministry of Defence, US General William Seely said: “In deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, [the joint-taskforce] will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement.
“As we begin implementing this next phase of operations, I want to reiterate the value of our friendship and partnership. We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, told reporters that the letter was a “poorly worded” and unsigned draft not meant to be released.
When asked about the document, Esper said: “There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq.”
The letter appears to have caught Australia by surprise just as the Morrison government was privately and publicly urging their Iraqi counterparts to defy a parliamentary vote calling for the expulsion of coalition forces.
Comment has been sought from the Australian government.
The letter’s reference to Iraqi Prime Minister Abil Abdul-Mahdi is significant because it suggests the US expects him to buckle under pressure and endorse Monday’s parliamentary vote.
It is possible the Pentagon may draw down troop numbers in Baghdad and shift troops to outlying bases ahead of a final decision about whether to leave the country. It is also possible the letter is designed to drive home a message to Baghdad that it needs to think carefully about the implications of ordering the US to walk away.
The Australian government has been alarmed by the dramatic escalation in the Middle East following US President Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike at Baghdad International Airport last week.
Tehran has vowed to avenge the assassination, prompting Trump to warn any attack on American troops or installations would automatically trigger a wave of targeted strikes on Iranian targets.
The stand-off escalated on Monday when the Iraqi Parliament, which is heavily influenced by Tehran, voted to expel US troops and their allies – including Australia – from the country.
Australia swiftly launched an intense lobbying effort to convince Iran’s government to allow the international effort to continue, however senior officials inside the Department of Defence and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have been contingency planning in case Baghdad adopted the parliamentary resolution.
The Australian Defence Force has about 350 troops in Iraq and 2000 support personnel in the surrounding area as part of an international coalition to defeat IS launched in 2014.
The operation has largely defeated or contained IS but military officials say an ongoing presence by coalition forces is essential to stop a resurgence that could trigger fresh terrorist attacks in the Middle East, Europe and even Australia.
The general’s letter advised the repositioning of troops would need to be conducted in a “safe and efficient manner”.
He warned there would be an increase in helicopter travel in and around Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
“Coalition forces will take appropriate measures to minimise and mitigate the disturbance to the public,” Seely wrote.
“In addition, we will conduct these operations during hours of darkness to help alleviate any perception that we may be bringing more Coalition forces into the [Green zone].”
Trump has vowed to impose crippling sanctions on Iraq if it orders US troops to leave the country for the first time since the 2003 invasion.
“If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever,” Trump said. “It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
Australia has budgeted $241 million for Operation OKRA this financial year and spent nearly $2.5 billion in the years since it was launched by then prime minister Tony Abbott in 2014.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.