Donald Trump’s unannounced Christmas visit to US troops in Iraq succeeded as a morale-boosting exercise, judging from the standing ovation the president got. Equally, and perhaps predictably, the trip had its controversial moments.
Mr Trump’s travelled to al-Asad airbase, west of Baghdad, to thank armed forces personnel for what they had achieved in Iraq against Islamic State (IS), the Sunni Muslim militant group, during his tenure as commander-in-chief:
“Two years ago when I became president they were a very dominant group, today they’re not so dominant any more. Great job.”
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” he said. “We’re respected again as a nation.”
Mr Trump was accompanied by First Lady Melania Trump on the first trip of his presidency to a war zone. The couple walked amid troops, posing for selfies and signing autographs.
More than 5,000 US troops remain in Iraq to train and advise local forces, who are fighting what remains of IS following a string a victories last year.
The president also announced that he had secured a sizable pay increase for troops.
Some of his advisers had suggested 2, 3 or 4%, he said, adding that he had made clear that this was not enough: “I said: ‘No. Make it 10%. Make it more than 10%.’ Because it’s been a long time, it’s been more than 10 years.”
But as a number of US commentators noted, armed forces personnel have in fact received a pay rise in each of the past 10 years.
The increase for 2019, approved by Congress and signed by the president in August, will be 2.6%.
It is the largest rise for troops since 2010, but not significantly more than last year’s 2.4%.
President Trump was due to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi during the trip but the talks were cancelled over what Mr Mahdi’s office called “disagreements” over organisation.
Iraqi MPs told Reuters news agency that Mr Trump had asked for the meeting to take place at the al-Asad military base, an offer declined by the prime minister.
When asked if he had had concerns about the visit, Mr Trump told reporters: “Absolutely. I had concerns for the institution of the presidency – not for myself, personally. I had concerns for the first lady, I will tell you.”
Mr Mahdi’s office said US officials had given Iraq advance notice of the presidential visit, but powerful local figures clearly took umbrage.
Sabah al-Saadi, who leads the Shia Muslim parliamentary bloc Islah, called it a “blatant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty”.
Qais al-Khazali, commander of Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, Iraq’s most powerful Shia Muslim militia, also objected to the trip. He warned in a tweet that parliament would respond to the visit by “forcing the US troops to leave Iraq”.