Two Generals Who Served in Iraq Get Trump to Drop It From Ban

Updated on
  • Mattis and McMaster helped persuade president to alter order
  • Timing for new order has slipped to at best end of the week

Two generals who once commanded troops in Iraq helped persuade President Donald Trump to drop that country in a revision of his controversial travel ban.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, both veterans of the two U.S. wars in Iraq, successfully pressed Trump to exclude the country from a 90-day travel ban that originally covered seven mostly Muslim nations in the Middle East and Africa, a White House official said.

James Mattis

Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

McMaster argued that including Iraq would hinder joint efforts by U.S. and Iraqi forces to combat Islamic State terrorists that control parts of the country and would fail to recognize sacrifices Iraqis made on behalf of U.S. troops, said another White House official.

The plight of Iraqi translators who risked their lives to assist U.S. forces in the country and in many cases now seek refuge in the U.S. is a passionate cause for many veterans of the war.

Trump has described the travel directive as an urgent national security matter but has repeatedly delayed issuing a revised order after a federal court blocked his original plan. It’s now been more than a month since Trump’s original order was issued and the president has put it off until at least Friday, according to two other White House officials, who asked not to be identified discussing the policy decision ahead of its announcement.


White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters at a daily briefing Wednesday that the process has been slowed by consultations with federal agencies that would carry out the order. He declined to say when the new order would be issued.

The postponement allows more time for the administration to build political momentum from Trump’s address to Congress on Tuesday night before public attention shifts again to the travel ban.

Trump and his aides previously had said the threat to the U.S. was so pronounced that they couldn’t take the time for extended consultations across government before issuing an order. Trump’s initial travel ban set off a weekend of chaos at airports and border crossings as hundred of people were detained or delayed in being admitted to the country.

“The problem is we would’ve wasted a lot of time, and maybe a lot of lives because a lot of bad people would’ve come into our country,” Trump said at a Feb. 16 press conference, defending his decision to issue the initial order.

Urgency Expressed

Spicer described the urgency in catastrophic terms on Jan. 31.

“We don’t know when the next terrorist is going to enter this country. We don’t know when the next bomb’s going to go off,” Spicer said. “And the last thing that you want to do is to say well we could’ve done this Saturday, but we waited one more day. Or we wanted to roll it out differently. And someone’s life got lost.”

The ban on entry by Iraqi citizens caused consternation for a key U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi turned back a recommendation from angry lawmakers in Parliament to reciprocate by denying access to the U.S. military advisers who are helping in the fight against Islamic State and to American oil workers who support Iraq’s most important industry.

Saad Al-Hadithi, Abadi’s spokesman, said in a phone interview from Baghdad on Wednesday that the prime minister urged Trump to exclude Iraq from the ban in a phone call two weeks ago. Al-Hadithi said the Iraqi government hadn’t yet received official notice from the Trump administration that the country would be exempted from the revised travel ban.

Mattis and McMaster drew on their deep experience in the region to press the case on Trump.

Donald Trump with H.R. McMaster.

Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

As a lieutenant colonel, Mattis commanded one of the first Marine battalions that went into Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. By the time of the second war in Iraq he’d rise to major general and led a Marine division that occupied insurgent strongholds in the western Al Anbar province.

McMaster, then a captain, commanded a troop of nine Abrams tanks that destroyed more than 80 Republican Guard tanks in a famous battle during the Persian Gulf War. Later, as an army colonel, he commanded a successful campaign in Iraq to clear Tal Afar of insurgents that became a model for counter-insurgency efforts.

The revised order will initially keep out citizens of Yemen, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya and Somalia for three months while the government determines whether people from those countries can be sufficiently vetted for terrorist sympathies, the official said. 

The new order will also alter treatment of Syrian refugees, who had been banned indefinitely under the original order. They will now face the same 120-day ban as refugees from other countries, the official said.

Watch Next: Trump Administration Prepares New Travel Ban