President Trump, his wife Melania and National Security Adviser John Bolton travelled on Air Force One to al-Asad airbase, west of Baghdad, to meet military personnel in the base’s canteen. The US still has some 5’000 troops in Iraq to support the government in its fight against what remains of the Islamic State group.

It was his first visit to the region.

During the visit he got a standing ovation from troops as he entered a dining hall and walked around greeting them, posing for selfies and signing autographs.He said the reason for the visit was to personally thank them for helping to defeat the Islamic State, adding: “ Two years ago when I became president, they were a very dominant group, today they’re not so dominant any more. Great job. ”

He then defended his decision to withdraw forces from neighboring Syria and declared that the Islamic State is “very nearly defeated” while making his first visit to a conflict zone as commander in chief.

The President used his visit to al-Asad Air Base to amplify his call to draw down the U.S. presence in foreign wars and assert his personal influence over the military at a moment of perceived turmoil at the Pentagon.

Introducing the President of the United States

Accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, the President sounded a triumphant note as he addressed U.S. service members on the day after Christmas. “We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” he said. And he warned that he was committed to withdrawing troops from foreign wars even when his administration’s experts object.

President Trump said the US could use Iraq as a forward base if it “wanted to do something in Syria”, news agencies report. Defending his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria during the visit, he said: “A lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking. I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds.

“Eight years ago, we went there for three months and we never left. Now, we’re doing it right and we’re going to finish it off.”

“The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world,” Trump said. “It’s not fair when the burden is all on us, the United States.”

After a briefing with military and diplomatic leaders on the ground, President Trump strongly defended his decision to pull out of Syria. But he said he had no plans to withdraw American forces from Iraq, which he said the United States could use as a staging ground in the heart of the Middle East from which to combat Iran, or someday reenter Syria.

“If we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard . . . they really won’t know what the hell happened,” Trump said. “But it’s time to get our soldiers out.”

President Trump’s sudden decision last week to withdraw troops from Syria led the US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the global coalition fighting the Islamic State, to resign in protest.

The President, who spent the holiday at the White House amid a partial federal government shutdown, departed Joint Base Andrews near Washington aboard Air Force One at 12:06 a.m. Wednesday. He flew in the dark of night in an attempt to preserve operational security.

Trump’s cover risked being blown by eagle-eyed social media users. A Twitter user in Germany posted that he had tracked an aircraft that could be Air Force One, while a British-based Flickr user later posted a photo of a plane bearing the presidential aircraft’s blue-and-white color scheme flying through clear skies over Yorkshire.

Asked why he decided to visit Iraq, President Trump told reporters: “It’s a place that I’ve been talking about for many years. And many, many years, before it started, I was talking about it, as a civilian.”

The president added, “I want to come and pay my respects, most importantly, to the great soldiers, great troopers we have here.” Even if President Trump initially supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he later criticized the effort. He was also critical of President Barack Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, saying the move created the Islamic State.

The unannounced visit continues a holiday tradition followed by past presidents.

Although President Trump had previously addressed U.S. troops stationed overseas, including in Italy, Japan and South Korea, he had drawn criticism for not having visited those deployed to combat zones.

President Trump made a visit to Iraq on Dec. 26, meeting with troops a day after Christmas

Vice President Pence visited Afghanistan on Dec. 22, 2017, to address troops and meet with commanders at Bagram air base near Kabul.

Al-Asad Air Base is northwest of Ramadi, a city that the Islamic State captured before U.S.-backed Iraqi forces retook the area.

Trump said he considered the safety risks in making his first trip to a war zone.

“I had concerns for the institution of the presidency,” he told reporters. “Not for myself, personally. I had concerns for the first lady, I will tell you. But if you would have seen what we had to go through, with the darkened plane, with all windows closed, with no lights on whatsoever, anywhere — pitch black. I’ve never seen it. I’ve been in many airplanes — all types and shapes and sizes. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“So did I have a concern?” he added. “Yeah, I had a concern.”

With Philip Rucker and Paul Sonne

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