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'Active Disinformation' or 'Honest Mistake'? Story Shifts on Leaked Letter Saying U.S. Will Leave Iraq

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Iraq memo was a "mistake," said top general. The Trump administration's handling of things in Iraq and Iran continues to be an incredible mix of stunning incompetence and potentially monumental consequences. The latest involves a leaked letter about U.S. troops leaving Iraq that the Pentagon suggested was part of a propaganda campaign—only to later say it was a real draft letter but delivered to Iraqi military officials by mistake.

The Iraqi parliament voted over the weekend that the U.S. military and all foreign troops must go, saying in a resolution: "The Iraqi government must work to end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, airspace or water for any reason." The move came in response to America's execution of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, and "in anticipation of a reaction from the mostly pro-Iran groups which demand such a move," said Baghdad-based analyst Tareq Harb.

On Monday, a leaked document suggested that the U.S. would withdraw its troops—about 5,000 remain in the region—in accordance with the Iraqi leadership's wishes. The document appeared to be from the U.S. Command in Baghdad and was dated January 6.

An unsigned letter from William Seely III, commanding general of U.S. operations in Iraq, it said that "in due deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq," the U.S.-led coalition there would "be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement."

The letter hadn't just been leaked to U.S. media but delivered to Iraqi military officials, and the Iraqi prime minister's office had done the leaking, according to Liz Sly of The Washington Post. She added that the U.S. military had "confirmed [the letter's] authenticity."

Not long later, the official story would change. According to Annie Dreazen in the Pentagon's policy office, the letter wasn't a draft but a deliberate fake, meant as "active disinformation."

Who had created the letter was unknown, but Dreazen suggested it was a U.S. adversary.

"It'd be a big deal if the letter had been fabricated by Iran or another malign actor and humiliating if the U.S. fell for such misdirection," writes Steve Hayes at The Dispatch.

But the story would soon shift again. When reporters asked Defense Secretary Mark Esper about the memo, he agreed that the information it contained was wrong, or at least "inconsistent of where we are right now." But he couldn't offer much information about its origins.

"I don't know what that letter is. We're trying to find out where that's coming from, what that is," Esper said.

Almost immediately thereafter, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said the letter was not an Iranian propaganda missive at all but a real draft letter, released in error. "It was unsigned," said Milley. The letter "implies withdrawal," but "that is not what's happening."

He called the release of the letter an "honest mistake."

What the hell just happened? No one is quite sure. Milley's mistake narrative certainly squares with what we know about the Trump administration more generally, which is that the Keystone Cops' most inept descendants are basically running the show. But it's also the kind of thing folks might "admit" to if the truth were a lot like more embarrassing…

More from The Dispatch:

A mistake? Why was it transmitted to the Iraqis? The United States had given Iraqi security forces formal notice that U.S. troops would be leaving the country … by accident? Apparently so. Esper explained that drafts are circulated all the time and this one just happened to get circulated to the wrong folks. (Dreazen referred inquiries from The Dispatch to the Pentagon press shop, where officials pointed us to the public statements from Milley and Esper but otherwise declined to comment on the "active disinformation" assessment provided Capitol Hill or the broader matter.)

The bottom line, for now: the U.S. is not withdrawing troops.

So, is America now violating an Iraqi government order?

Not yet. "Parliament resolutions, unlike laws, are non-binding and the move would require new legislation to cancel the existing agreement" between Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition still present there, Al Jazeera explains.

Esper told reporters yesterday: "It is being reported as a non binding vote…So it's nonbinding right now. Wethis has to play out. I think there's some more action that has to happen."


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