Trump says he has 'no plans at all' to withdraw troops from Iraq during his first visit to troops in a combat zone

During a surprise trip to Iraq, his first such visit with US troops in a combat zone, President Donald Trump says he has "no plans at all" to withdraw US forces from the country, where they've been present since the 2003 invasion.

Trump had not previously said he would pull US troops from Iraq, but the trip comes after he abruptly announced the withdrawal of some 2,000 US troops from Syria — a decision that reportedly prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' resignation — and reports emerged of plans to remove about half of the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan.

Mattis, who will leave office at the end of the year, signed an order to withdraw troops from Syria on December 24.

Trump, accompanied by his wife, Melania, traveled to Iraq late on Christmas night, flying to Al Asad air base in western Iraq and delivering a holiday message to more than 5,000 US troops stationed in the country. He is expected to make two stops on the trip, according to The New York Times.

The trip was kept secret, with Air Force One reportedly making the 11-hour flight with lights off and window shades drawn. Trump said he had never seen anything like it and that he was more concerned with the safety of those with him than he was for himself, according to the Associated Press.

The president said that because of gains made against ISIS in Syria, US forces there were able to return home. US officials have said the militant group holds about 1% of the territory it once occupied, though several thousand fighters remain in pockets in western Syria and others have blended back into local populations.

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Donald Trump and Melania Trump make unannounced visit to Iraq
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Donald Trump and Melania Trump make unannounced visit to Iraq
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive to speak to members of the US military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. - President Donald Trump arrived in Iraq on his first visit to US troops deployed in a war zone since his election two years ago (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, right, and senior military leadership, speaks to members of the media and military personnel at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump greet members of the military at a hanger rally at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive to visit with members of the military at a dining hall at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Donald Trump visits with members of the military at a dining hall at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Donald Trump, accompanied by National Security Adviser John Bolton, third from left, first lady Melania Trump, fourth from right, US Ambassador to Iraq Doug Silliman, third from right, and senior military leadership, speaks to members of the media at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet members of the US military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. - President Donald Trump arrived in Iraq on his first visit to US troops deployed in a war zone since his election two years ago (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump takes a photo as he greets members of the US military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump greets members of the US military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet members of the US military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump signs a hat as First Lady Melania Trump looks on as they greet members of the US military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. - President Donald Trump arrived in Iraq on his first visit to US troops deployed in a war zone since his election two years ago (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet members of the US military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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Trump said the mission in Syria was to remove ISIS from its strongholds and not to be a nation-builder, which he said was a job for other wealthy countries. He praised Saudi Arabia this week for committing money to rebuild the war-torn country. The US presence there was never meant to be "open-ended," he added.

Trump told reporters traveling with him that he wanted to remove US forces from Syria but that Iraq could still be used as a base to launch attacks on ISIS militants.

If needed, the US can attack ISIS "so fast and so hard" that they "won't know what the hell happened," Trump said.

NOW WATCH: What the US needs to do to prevent a new ISIS in Iraq

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