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Making first war-zone trip, Trump surprises U.S. troops in Iraq

President Trump and the first lady have come and gone from Iraq, after a surprise post-Christmas visit to greet U.S. troops stationed there. The president spent about three hours on the ground, meeting with commanders and posing for photos with troops. He reiterated his belief that ISIS has been defeated and said “we are fighting in areas where we shouldn't be fighting.” Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • William Brangham:

    President Trump has come and gone from Iraq tonight, in a surprise first trip to the country. The day-after-Christmas visit came under cover of darkness.

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Western Iraq, 6,000 miles from the political combat of Washington, the commander in chief declared the U.S. combat against ISIS a success.

  • Donald Trump:

    When I became president, they were a very dominant group. They were very dominant. Today, they're not so dominant anymore.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The president and first lady spent three hours in Iraq, meeting with U.S. commanders and posing for photos. These mostly special operations forces fight in Iraq and Syria, and President Trump defended his decision to withdraw the troops currently based across the border in Syria.

  • Donald Trump:

    We are fighting in areas where we shouldn't be fighting and spending hundreds of billions of dollars doing it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There are 2,200 U.S. troops in Syria, and President Trump has faced intense criticism for ordering their withdrawal. This trip allowed him to reiterate his plans, while also vowing to keep troops in Iraq.

    About 5,200 U.S. service members are based in Iraq. They provide fire support, and train Iraqi troops, as well as supply intelligence and aerial surveillance. While Iraqi troops hunt ISIS fighters, the U.S. conducts airstrikes, such as this one two weeks ago against an ISIS cave.

    It's been more than a year since Iraqi soldiers celebrated the government declaring victory against ISIS, but ISIS is still able to launch as many as 75 attacks per month, according to one study, including this Christmas Day bombing.

    Speaking to Pentagon reporters two weeks ago, the U.S. commander in Iraq said ISIS militants were isolated and not a strategic threat.

  • Col. Jonathan Byrom:

    ISIS itself really right now is in austere conditions. They're spending most of their time in caves, underground, in tunnels, in austere, tough desert terrain.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump has used claims that ISIS is on the run to follow through on campaign promises to withdraw from war. Today, even as he said troops in Iraq would stay, he vowed to bring as many as he could home.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

  • William Brangham:

    Nick will be back after the news summary with a longer look at the significance of the president's trip and his broader policies.

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