US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania greet members of the US military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on Wednesday. Photo: AFP

US President Donald Trump made a surprse visit to Iraq on Wednesday, leaving behind a partially shut down government to rub shoulders with American troops spending the holiday thousands of kilometers from home.

The visit comes a week after Trump stunned his national security advisers by announcing that he would pull US troops out of neighboring Syria where they have been fighting ISIS militants. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis abruptly resigned following the surprise announcement, and Trump’s decision has unnerved America’s allies around the world.

The president’s Boxing Day mission was shrouded in secrecy. Air Force One flew overnight from Washington, landing at an airbase west of Baghdad under the cover of darkness Wednesday evening. It is Trump’s first visit with troops stationed in a troubled region.

“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,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders tweeted.

Melania’s spokeswoman called it “a surprise visit to our brave US service members currently deployed in Iraq.”

Fifteen years after the 2003 invasion, the US still has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq supporting the Baghdad government as it continues the fight against remaining pockets of resistance by ISIS, which has lost much of the territory it held in Iraq and Syria but is still viewed as a threat.

Trump, who frequently voices support for the US military but never served himself due to “bone spurs,” a medical condition, had faced criticism for not visiting troops stationed in dangerous places after nearly two years in office. He told The Associated Press in an interview in October that he “will do that at some point, but I don’t think it’s overly necessary.” He later indicated that a visit was in the works.

The president had planned to spend Christmas at his private club in Florida, but stayed behind in the nation’s capital due to the government being partially shut down. The government has been crippled by a stalemate between Trump and congressional Democrats over the president’s demand for funds to pay for a wall along the US-Mexico border.

– with reporting by The Washington Post and Agence France-Presse

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