Trump makes surprise Christmas visit to US troops in Iraq

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Donald Trump has made a surprise trip to Iraq, meeting American soldiers in what was his first visit to a conflict zone since becoming US president.

Mr Trump and his wife Melania took off from Washington DC late on Christmas day and arrived on Boxing Day for a visit that was kept closely under wraps.

While there Mr Trump confirmed that he would not be pulling US troops out of Iraq, despite his decision earlier this month to withdraw from Syria.

That choice had split his administration, with James Mattis quitting as defence secretary and Brett McGurk leaving as his envoy to the coalition against the terrorist group Isil.

Mr Trump has been criticized for failing to visit US soldiers stationed overseas in combat zones during his presidency so far, which has lasted almost two years.

Announcing the news, Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, tweeted a picture of Mr Trump posing with his wife and US soldiers in uniform.

Ms Sanders wrote: “President Trump and the First Lady travelled to Iraq late on Christmas night to visit with our troops and senior military leadership to thank them for their service, their success, and their sacrifice and to wish them a Merry Christmas.”

Some 5,200 American troops remain stationed in Iraq, the country that the US invaded in March 2003 in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001.

The visit to Al Asad Air Base, which is west of Baghdad, saw Mr Trump accompanied by a small group of aides and Secret Service agents, as well as a pool of reporters.

The US president spent around three hours at the base. He was also due to stop in at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on the trip back home.

Speaking to reporters, Mr Trump defended his decision to pull America’s 2,000 troops out of Syria despite warnings from senior military figures and allies.

There are fears America’s withdrawal could undermine the attempts to fully defeat Isil, which retains pockets of support in the country, and let Russia and Iran increase their hold there.

Mr Trump said of his Syria decision: “I think a lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking. It’s time for us to start using our head.”

He also said: “It’s time to get out young people out. And I’ve been signing plenty of letters and I don’t like sending those letters home to parents saying that your young man or your young woman has been killed.

“I don’t like doing it. We’ve been doing it long enough.”

Mr Trump suggested that Iraq could be used as a military base to launch operations against Isil in Syria if problems flare up in the future.

Both of Mr Trump’s predecessors, Republican George W Bush and Democrat Barack Obama, made surprise trips to Iraq during their presidencies.

The trip came as a quarter of the US federal government remained shut down because of a failure to agree on new spending.

Standard & Poor’s, the credit rating firm, has estimated that the shutdown will shave $1.2 billion off America’s gross domestic product [GDP] every week it went on.

The shutdown began at midnight on Friday and shows little sign of ending as the one-week mark approaches. The departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Transportation are among those impacted.

Some 800,000 government workers are affected. While some of them continue to work, many will not get paid until the shutdown ends, impacting cash flows for scores of Americans.