'Honest mistake' sets off alarm about US troops in Iraq

An “honest mistake” set off a chaotic day at the Pentagon, when a draft letter implied a troop withdrawal from Iraq that top leaders flatly denied

WASHINGTON -- For a few tense hours Monday, the United States appeared to have announced that American troops were pulling out of Baghdad after nearly 17 years.

Turns out, it was just an “honest mistake.”

“Here's the bottom line, this was a mistake,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said as he tried to unravel a knot of miscommunication that came at a time of already soaring tensions with the Middle East.

Seely added, “We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”

A flurry of news reports followed Seely's letter, saying the United States was ending its military presence in Iraq.

But after a few hours of denials and frantic phone calls, top Pentagon leaders tried to do damage control, stating flatly that the U.S. had no plans to leave and saying the letter was a poorly worded draft that never should have gone out.

“Nobody's leaving," Milley said. “There's no onward movement. Honest mistake."

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. has been re-positioning troops, largely due to increased security threats from Iran. The letter was meant to coordinate with the Iraqi military on an increase in U.S. helicopter and troop movements as they shift positions around the country, Esper and Milley said.

“There's been no decision whatsover to leave Iraq,” Esper said. “There’s no decision to leave, nor did we issue any plans to leave or prepare to leave.”

It's not entirely clear who leaked the letter. According to Milley, the draft was circulated to key Iraqi officials as part of a coordination process to let them know about the increased helicopter movements. Officials say it was first posted on the website of an Iranian-backed militia group.

“Now it's a kerfuffle," Milley lamented.

Efforts Monday to reach Seely and his spokesperson were not successful.

The blunder is a black eye for the Pentagon at a time of high tensions stemming from the targeted killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force.