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U.S. Sends More Forces to Mideast While Esper Denies Iraq Exit

January 6, 2020, 9:54 PM UTC

The U.S. ordered additional forces to the Middle East as tensions with Iran continue to climb and Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. hasn’t decided whether to leave Iraq.

The three-ship Bataan Amphibious Readiness Group has been ordered to move to the Persian Gulf region from the Mediterranean, where it has been exercising, according to a U.S. official. The group is composed of the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, transport dock ship USS New York and dock/landing ship USS Oak Hill, and includes about 2,200 Marines and a helicopter unit.

The move followed reports of a letter purportedly telling military officials in Baghdad that American forces were repositioning in advance of a departure. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Monday that the letter was a draft and should never have been sent.

“There is no decision to leave, nor did we issue any plans to leave or prepare to leave,” Esper said.

The Pentagon chief told reporters Monday that he believes the Iraqi people and lawmakers want the U.S. to maintain a presence in the country, 17 years after it invaded to oust Saddam Hussein.

The comments came a day after Iraq’s parliament, in a non-binding vote, called on U.S. troops to withdraw.

Esper also said any U.S. strike on Iran wouldn’t target cultural sites. That appeared to contradict comments from President Donald Trump over the weekend, when he said on Twitter that he had included Iranian cultural sites on his list of 52 targets for attack should Tehran retaliate against the U.S.’s assassination of Iran’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani.

The defense secretary also said the U.S. remains committed to the campaign to defeat Islamic State. Over the weekend, the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS said it would suspend operations in Iraq to focus on protecting bases that have come under attack.

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