Iraq embraces 'no takebacks' rule following US letter on withdrawal

The Trump administration delivered a letter to Iraqi officials declaring our intention to withdraw. Now Iraq expects the administration to follow through.
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By Steve Benen

The Trump administration has had more than its share of fiascoes, but the letter to Iraq on the withdrawal of U.S. troops is proving to be one of the most extraordinary. The Associated Press reported:

Iraq's outgoing prime minister said Tuesday that the United States has no alternative and must pull its troops out of the country, or else face an impending crisis. [...]

Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned in November amid mass anti-government protests, said Iraq wants a U.S. troop withdrawal to avoid further escalation as tensions soar between American and Iran.

To briefly recap, the Iraqi parliament voted unanimously on Saturday to expel U.S. military forces from Iraqi soil. Two days later, officials in Baghdad received a letter from Marine Brig. Gen. William Seely, who commands Task Force Iraq, not only declaring the U.S. intention to withdraw, but including specific and detailed information about how it would occur.

In apparent reference to the Iraqi parliament's vote, the letter said, "We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure."

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As is too often the case, the Trump administration struggled to keep its story straight about the letter, before eventually saying the whole thing was an unfortunate "mistake."

Yesterday, however, acting Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi embraced the "no takebacks" rule used on playgrounds for generations. The Washington Post reported:

Iraqi officials said Tuesday that they are interpreting the letter as notification that U.S. troops will leave. Acting prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said the document "was clear" and expressed exasperation with conflicting U.S. signals.

"It's not like a draft, or a paper that fell out of the photocopier and coincidentally came to us," Mahdi told the Iraqi cabinet in comments on state television.

That last point is a relevant detail. While there was some confusion yesterday about whether the withdrawal letter was actually delivered to Iraqi officials, as Rachel noted on last night's show, the truth has since come into sharper focus: not only did the Trump administration transmit the letter, the document was actually sent twice, because the first version included translation issues.

What's more, while the Trump administration initially emphasized that the letter was unsigned, the Washington Post report added, "U.S. military officials confirmed the letter was genuine, and one said that a version sent to Iraqi officials was signed."

A fiasco of this magnitude is problematic at any time, but given the conditions in the Middle East, the timing of Team Trump's ineptitude adds insult to injury.

NBC News' Richard Engel, reporting from the Middle East, noted yesterday that the broader message from Iraq's exasperated prime minister was straightforward: "How disorganized is the U.S. administration?"

That need not be a rhetorical question.

Postscript: At a White House event yesterday, Donald Trump suggested the letter in question might have been "a hoax." I'm convinced that the president has absolutely no idea what that word means.

MORE: Today's Maddowblog