BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States has no plans to pull its troops out of Iraq, Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday (Jan 6), following reports by Reuters and other media of an American military letter informing Iraqi officials about the repositioning of troops in preparation to leave the country.
The developments came in the aftermath of last Friday's drone strike in Baghdad ordered by US President Donald Trump that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, widely seen as Iran's second-most powerful figure behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr Khamenei, 80, wept in grief with hundreds of thousands of mourners thronging the streets of Teheran at Major-General Soleimani's funeral on Monday.
Word of the letter came a day after Iran's demand for US forces to withdraw from the region gained traction when Iraq's Parliament passed a resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave the country.
The letter said US-led coalition forces would be using helicopters to evacuate. Several were heard flying over Baghdad on Monday night, although it was not immediately clear if that was a related development.
"There's been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq," Mr Esper told Pentagon reporters when asked about the letter, adding that there were no plans issued to prepare to leave.
"I don't know what that letter is... We're trying to find out where that's coming from, what that is. But there's been no decision made to leave Iraq. Period."
The letter caused confusion about the future of US forces in Iraq. The US has about 5,000 American troops in Iraq.
The top US military officer told reporters the letter was a poorly worded draft document meant only to underscore increased movement by US forces.
"Poorly worded, implies withdrawal. That's not what's happening," said US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressing there was no withdrawal being planned.
The authenticity of the letter, which was addressed to the Iraqi Defence Ministry's Combined Joint Operations Baghdad and signed by a US general, had been confirmed to Reuters by an Iraqi military source.
Mr Esper added the US was still committed to countering the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants in the country, alongside America's allies and partners.
"Sir, in deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CJTF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement," the letter stated. CJTF-OIR stands for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.
It was signed by US Marine Corps Brigadier General William Seely III, commanding general of the US-led military coalition against ISIS.
"We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure," the letter said.
Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi told the US ambassador to Baghdad on Monday that both nations needed to implement the Iraqi parliamentary resolution, the premier's office said in a statement. It did not give a timeline.
THRONGS IN TEHERAN
At the funeral in the Iranian capital, Ayatollah Khamenei led prayers, pausing as his voice cracked with emotion. Maj-Gen Soleimani, 62, was a national hero in Iran, even to many who do not consider themselves supporters of Iran's clerical rulers.
Aerial footage showed people, many clad in black, packing thoroughfares and side streets in Teheran, chanting: "Death to America!" - a show of national unity after anti-government protests in November in which many demonstrators were killed.
The crowd, which state media said numbered in the millions, recalled the masses of people that gathered in 1989 for the funeral of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The killing of Maj-Gen Soleimani has prompted concern around the world that a broader regional conflict could flare.
Mr Trump vowed on Saturday to strike 52 Iranian targets, including cultural sites, if Iran retaliates with attacks on Americans or US assets, and stood by his threat on Sunday, although American officials sought to downplay his reference to cultural targets. The 52 figure, Mr Trump noted, matched the number of US Embassy hostages held for 444 days after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Responding to Mr Trump's vow, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani wrote on Twitter on Monday: "Never threaten the Iranian nation."
Maj-Gen Soleimani's successor vowed to expel US forces from the Middle East in revenge.
Mr Rouhani, regarded as a moderate, responded to Mr Trump on Twitter.
"Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655," Mr Rouhani wrote, referring to the 1988 shooting down of an Iranian airline by a US warship in which 290 were killed.
Mr Trump also took to Twitter to reiterate the White House stance that "Iran will never have a nuclear weapon", but gave no other details.
Washington blamed Maj-Gen Soleimani for the attacks on US forces and their allies.
Maj-Gen Esmail Ghaani, Maj-Gen Soleimani's successor as commander of the Quds Force, the elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards charged with overseas operations, promised to "continue martyr Soleimani's cause as firmly as before with the help of God, and in return for his martyrdom we aim to rid the region of America".
"God the Almighty has promised to take martyr Soleimani's revenge," he told state television. "Certainly, actions will be taken."
Other political and military leaders have made similar, unspecific threats. Iran, which lies at the mouth of the key Gulf oil shipping route, has a range of proxy forces in the region through which it could act.
Iran stoked tensions on Sunday by dropping all limitations on its uranium enrichment, another step back from commitments under a landmark deal with major powers in 2015 to curtail its nuclear programme that Mr Trump abandoned in 2018.
France's foreign minister said the substance of the accord was slowly disappearing and European powers would decide in coming days whether to launch a dispute resolution process that could lead to a reinstatement of UN sanctions on Iran that were lifted under the deal.