The United States has no plans to pull troops out of Iraq, Defense Secretary Mark Esper says, following reports by Reuters and other media of a US military letter informing Iraq officials about the repositioning of troops in preparation to leave the country.
The developments come in the aftermath of an American drone strike 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.
"There's been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq," Esper told Pentagon reporters when asked about the letter, adding 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 United States has about 5,000 US troops in Iraq.
The letter was a poorly-worded draft document meant only to underscore increase movement of US forces, the top US military officer told reporters.
"Poorly worded, implies withdrawal. That's not what's happening," US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff said, 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.
Esper added the United States was still committed to countering Islamic State in Iraq, alongside America's allies and partners.
Several helicopters could be heard flying over Baghdad on Monday night. It was not immediately clear if this was a related development. The letter said coalition forces would be using helicopters to evacuate.
A letter given to Reuters stated: "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," read a letter from United States Marine Corps Brigadier General William H Seely III, the commanding general of Task Force Iraq.
The authenticity of the letter, addressed to the Iraqi defence ministry's Combined Joint Operations Baghdad, was confirmed to Reuters independently by an Iraqi military source.
"We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure," it said.
US president Donald Trump had previously warned Iraq of the possibility of sanctions over its moves to expel troops from its territory, after its parliament voted to order US troops to leave following the assassinations.
Top Trump administration officials including secretaries of state and defense are expected to brief the full US Senate on Thursday on developments in Iraq and Iran.
The briefing will include Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, aides said.
Tensions 'highest level this century'
Earlier this morning, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that "geopolitical tensions are at their highest level this century" and called on world leaders to stop escalating tensions, exercise maximum restraint and re-start dialogue.
Without naming any countries, Guterres told reporters: "This cauldron of tensions is leading more and more countries to take unpredicted decisions with unpredictable consequences and a profound risk of miscalculation."
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel about an Iraqi parliamentary resolution calling on foreign troops to leave the country, his office said today.
"The German chancellor expressed her support for Iraq's security and stability, and highlighted the importance of continued cooperation between Iraq and European Union member states over fighting terrorism," it said in a statement.
Other countries, including US-ally Britain had also urged caution, after President Trump had taken to Twitter warning of a "disproportionate response" and possibly targeting of "cultural sites" in Iran if the country retaliated against US assets or citizens.
Following Friday's attack by the US, Iran announced it would step back from a 2015 nuclear pact with six world powers by scrapping limits on enriching uranium. Iran has said it would continue to cooperate with the UN nuclear watchdog.
European parties to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal - which the US reneged on last year - could launch a dispute resolution process this week that might lead to renewed UN sanctions on Tehran, European diplomats told Reuters.
Iran has criticised Britain, France and Germany for failing to salvage the pact by shielding Tehran's economy from US sanctions, reimposed since 2018 when Washington pulled out of the agreement.
Confirming an emergency meeting of the European Union's 28 foreign ministers would take place on Friday, an EU diplomat said: "We must be ready to react to Iran's breaches of the nuclear deal."
Asked whether it could trigger a mechanism resulting in international sanctions being reimposed on Tehran, the envoy said it was "increasingly likely, but not yet decided. Friday will be key".
Two other diplomats said France, Britain and Germany could make the decision before Friday.
Asked whether the mechanism would be triggered, one of the diplomats said: "Not later than Friday, but yes."
Nuclear deal 'is all but dead'
Iran, which says its nuclear programme is for civilian purposes, has already breached many of the restrictions under the 2015 deal, intended to increase the amount of time Tehran would need to accumulate enough fissile material for an atomic bomb from 2-3 months to about a year.
"The vagueness of the Iran announcement makes it more necessary than ever to launch the mechanism since its whole purpose is to resolve the differences we have on this," a third diplomat said.
Any party to the deal that believes another is not meeting its commitments can refer the issue to a Joint Commission comprising Iran, Russia, China, the three European powers and the EU. There would then be 15 days to resolve the differences, but the period can be extended if there is a consensus to do so.
The process can ultimately lead to a "snapback" - the reimposition of sanctions in place under previous UN resolutions unless the UN Security Council decides otherwise.
Diplomats have said that unless any violations by Iran cross an unacceptable threshold, the Europeans will focus on extending the process rather than pushing towards sanctions, but it is unclear what the Europeans' breaking point would be.
"The deal is all but dead, but we will do everything to slow and limit the (nuclear) proliferation slope that has been taken to try and save what can be saved," a fourth European diplomat said, suggesting Europe still needed to gauge what would be the impact of any measures Iran takes most importantly on the breakout time.
The New Year has begun with our world in turmoil.— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) January 6, 2020
My message is clear:
Exercise maximum restraint.
Renew international cooperation.
Let us not forget the terrible human suffering caused by war. It is our common duty to avoid it. pic.twitter.com/iB1pOu8fia
Trump 'open' to new nuclear deal - Conway
US President Donald Trump is confident he could still renegotiate a nuclear deal with Tehran, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Monday, a day after Iran announced it would retreat further from the 2015 nuclear pact.
Asked if Trump believed he could still get Iran to negotiate a new nuclear agreement, Conway told reporters at the White House: "He said he's open. If Iran wants to start behaving like a normal country ... sure, absolutely."
Trump later took to Twitter to reiterate the White House stance that "Iran will never have a nuclear weapon" but gave no other details.
Conway also defended Trump's decision last week to kill one of Iran's top military commanders, saying the president "did what a responsible, strong - not weak - commander-in-chief does when faced with the opportunity to take out one of the - if not the - world's most wanted terrorists."
Iran has said it will not renegotiate the nuclear deal, which Trump abandoned in 2018, triggering a sharp decline in relations between Tehran and Washington.
Tehran said it would still continue to cooperate with the UN nuclear watchdog and could quickly reverse its steps if US sanctions introduced by Trump were removed.
Trump's administration has pursued a "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran that it said could help pressure Tehran to come to the negotiating table. Trump has previously said he is open to talks with Tehran.