(CNSNews.com) – President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have paid a surprise visit to Iraq, meeting with U.S. troops at an airbase in Anbar province “to thank them for their service, their success, and their sacrifice and to wish them a Merry Christmas,” the White House said.
According to press secretary Sarah Sanders, the Trumps traveled “late on Christmas night” for the visit.
“Melania and I were honored to visit our incredible troops at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq,” Trump tweeted afterwards. “GOD BLESS THE U.S.A.!”
He posted a video clip showing scenes interacting with troops, signing autographs and taking photos, meeting with senior officers, and addressing personnel in an aircraft hangar.
The visit took place at the Al Asad Airbase in Anbar province, about 100 miles north-west of Baghdad.
Later the White House schedule Twitter feed reported that Air Force One was en route to an undisclosed destination in Germany.
The visit came amid criticism at home over Trump’s announcement last week that he was withdrawing the 2,000 U.S. troops who have been supporting local allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria.
Addressing military personnel at the airbase he defended that decision, but said he has “no plans” to pull U.S. troops from Iraq.
“I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds,” he said. “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.”
Less than three years after overseeing the withdrawal of the last U.S. forces from Iraq, President Obama sent troops back into the country in 2014 under the mission name Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), to help local forces battling the jihadists of ISIS as they seized territory across large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Iraq’s government finally declared victory over ISIS last December, and today the around 5,000 U.S. personnel in the country are engaged mostly in training Iraqi soldiers and police.
The U.S. deployment to Syria began in late 2015 with the arrival of 50 special operators. The number subsequently grew to about 2,000 troops, most of whom have been supporting Kurdish and Arab allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting ISIS remnants along the Euphrates River.
OIR coalition airstrikes are continuing against ISIS holdouts in both Syria and Iraq.
According to Pentagon figures, 67 U.S. military personnel engaged in OIR have been killed in Iraq and Syria, 14 of them in combat circumstances.