President Donald Trump made an unannounced trip to Iraq Wednesday to visit U.S. troops stationed there.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump landed at al-Asad air base in western Iraq at 7:16 p.m. local time.
They left Washington late Christmas night, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a tweet Wednesday afternoon.
President Trump and the First Lady traveled 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. pic.twitter.com/s2hntnRwpw— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) December 26, 2018
This is Trump’s first visit to a conflict zone as president. The trip was undertaken in near secrecy.
In speaking to the troops, Trump defended his decision to withdraw from Syria, saying that Islamic State (IS) is “very nearly defeated” and the caliphate is gone.
“I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds,” Trump said, using an acronym for the militant group.
“Eight years ago, we went there for three months and we never left,” he said, adding the U.S presence in Syria was never meant to be “open-ended.”
Trump said Turkey has agreed to eliminate any IS “remnants” in the region.
“The nations of the region must step up and take more responsibility for their future,” Trump said, adding there would be an “orderly withdrawal” of the roughly 2,000 U.S. forces in Syria.
?Greeting the troops
The president and first lady greeted troops in a dining hall, taking photos and signing autographs as part of the visit. They left three hours later.
On the return to Washington, Air Force One stopped briefly at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, where Trump met with several U.S. Air Force leaders, and he and the first lady took photos with U.S. service members there.
Trump did not meet with any Iraqi officials during his short visit to the country, but he did speak on the phone with Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
Trump’s visit to Iraq came a day after he held a video conference from the Oval Office with military members around the globe. After the call, he was criticized by some media outlets that reported he is first president since 2002 to not visit U.S. troops at Christmastime.
WATCH: Trump Visits US Troops in Iraq on Unannounced Trip
Visiting U.S. troops in conflict zones is a tradition embraced by U.S. presidents because it is seen as a morale-booster for troops.
President George W. Bush visited U.S. troops stationed overseas eight times during his presidency, including serving a Thanksgiving meal to soldiers in Baghdad in 2003. President Barak Obama visited troops in Baghdad in April 2009, four months after he took office. He also visited troops in Afghanistan and South Korea.
The Pentagon said there are about 5,200 U.S. forces in Iraq.
In Washington, a partial shutdown has closed a quarter of the U.S. government after Congress failed to fund Trump’s proposed wall on the southern border with Mexico.
Last week, Trump made the controversial move of announcing plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. He also is considering withdrawing roughly half of the more than 14,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan, beginning next month.
Trump’s senior advisers and military officials have warned the move will plunge the region further into chaos.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter IS, Brett McGurk, have both resigned, at least in part in disagreement over policy in Syria and Afghanistan.