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  • FILE - In this Wednesday, April 4, 2018 file photo, a U.S. soldier, left, sits on an armored vehicle behind a sand barrier at a newly installed position near the front line between the U.S-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. An American military official said Friday, Jan. 11, 2019 that the U.S.-led military coalition has begun the process of withdrawing troops from Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

  • FILE - In this Saturday, March 31, 2018 file photo, a convoy of U.S. troops drive along a road leading to the front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. An American military official said Friday, Jan. 11, 2019 that the U.S.-led military coalition has begun the process of withdrawing troops from Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

  • FILE - In this Wednesday, April 4, 2018 file photo, a U.S. position, installed near the front line between the U.S-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. An American military official said Friday, Jan. 11, 2019 that the U.S.-led military coalition has begun the process of withdrawing troops from Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

Friday, January 11, 2019 11:30 am

US official says withdrawal from Syria has begun

PHILIP ISSA and ZEINA KARAM | Associated Press

BAGHDAD -- After days of conflicting statements about a timeline for U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to pull out American troops from Syria, a U.S. defense official said Friday the withdrawal process has begun with some military cargo pulled out.

The official said the movement of equipment is part of what the military calls the start of a "deliberate withdrawal" from Syria, where about 2,000 troops have been working with a coalition for Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters to defeat the remnants of the Islamic State group.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details that have not yet been publicly announced, provided no numbers, but said the equipment withdrawal is under way and that an unspecified number of additional U.S. troops have been brought into Syria to assist with the withdrawal process, including troops to provide additional security.

Hours earlier, Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, said "the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria" has started. He said the U.S. will not discuss a specific timeline, locations or troop movements out of concern for operational security.

Confirmation of the first withdrawals comes amid confusion about plans to implement Trump's pullout order and threats from Turkey to attack Kurdish fighters, who have been America's partners on the ground in the war against the Islamic State group in Syria.

Earlier this week, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said American troops will not leave northeast Syria until IS is defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected, signaling a slowdown in Trump's initial order for a rapid withdrawal.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said the withdrawal began Thursday night. It said a convoy of about 10 armored vehicles, in addition to some trucks, pulled out from Syria's northeast town of Rmeilan into Iraq.

A senior Kurdish politician said the Kurds are aware of the U.S. beginning its withdrawal process, describing it as "America's decision."

"The Americans have a right to make decisions that are in their country's security and national interests," said Ilham Ahmed, who co-chairs the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Council in northeast Syria.

But the peace and stability of areas U.S. forces withdraw from "must be guaranteed," she added. This, she said, includes putting an end to the Turkish threats and fully eradicating the Islamic State group and its sleeper cells.

Trump's abrupt decision in December to pull troops out, declaring in a tweet the defeat of IS, sent shock waves across the region and a flurry of criticism from some of his generals and national security advisers, and led to the resignation of U.S. Defense Minister James Mattis and the top U.S. envoy to the anti-IS coalition.

It also led to major criticism that the U.S. was abandoning its local Kurdish allies amid Turkish threats of an imminent attack.

Bolton, on a visit to the region this week, said the U.S. pullout was conditional on defeating IS and guarantees that the Kurds would be protected. His statements appeared to contradict those made earlier by Trump.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is on a tour of the region, has also sought to reassure the Kurds that they will be safe after U.S. troops withdraw from the country.

 

Karam reported from Beirut. Bassem Mroue of the Associated Press in Beirut, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this story.