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U.S. Special Forces troops near Manbij, Syria, on Feb. 7, 2018. The pending withdrawal from Syria is the latest example of a broader American disengagement from the Middle East. Image Credit: NYT

Baghdad: US troops withdrawing from northeastern Syria to Iraq are “transiting” and will leave the country within four weeks, Iraq’s defence minister said Wednesday.

Najah Al Shammari made the remarks to The Associated Press following a meeting in Baghdad with visiting US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, who arrived as Iraqi leaders chafed over reports the US may want to increase the number of troops based in Iraq, at least temporarily.

Iraq’s military said Tuesday that American troops leaving northeastern Syria don’t have permission to stay in Iraq in a statement that appeared to contradict Esper, who has said that all US troops leaving Syria would continue to conduct operations against Daesh from Iraq to prevent its resurgence in the region.

He later added that the troops would be there temporarily until they are able to go home, but no time period has been set.

Esper said earlier on Wednesday that the US has no plans to leave those troops in Iraq “interminably” and that he plans to talk with Iraqi leaders about the matter.

Al Shammari said Esper traveled to Iraq based on an invitation from the Iraqis. In Wednesday’s talks, he said the two sides agreed that the American troops crossing from Syria are “transiting” through Iraq and will then head to either Kuwait, Qatar or the United States “within a time frame not exceeding four weeks.”

The Iraqi minister said the planes that would transport the American troops out of Iraq have already arrived.

Esper’s visit to Baghdad came a day after Russia and Turkey reached an agreement that would deploy their forces along nearly the entire northeastern border to fill the void left after President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces from the area, a move that essentially cleared the way for the Turkish invasion earlier this month.

It was unclear Wednesday what that means for US forces.

Trump ordered the bulk of the approximately 1,000 US troops in Syria to withdraw after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated in a phone call that his forces were about to invade Syria to push back Syrian Kurdish fighters whom Ankara considers terrorists.

The pullout largely abandons the Kurdish allies who have fought Daesh alongside US troops for several years. Between 200 and 300 US troops will remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al Tanf.