(RNN) – President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump traveled overnight to Iraq to visit troops, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Twitter.
It marks the first time the president has visited the war zone.
While the visit comes as Trump has ordered a troop withdrawal from Syria and and potentially Afghanistan, according to the Associated Press the president said in Iraq that there were “no plans at all” to conduct a similar drawdown in that country.
The president and first lady landed at Al Asad Air Base in western Anbar Province, once one of the deadliest regions during the Iraq War. They went 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,” Sanders wrote.
The base is about 145 miles west of Baghdad. It was not clear if the president was also going to visit the Iraqi capital.
There are more than 5,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. The forces at Al Asad reportedly greeted the president and first lady enthusiastically with a standing ovation.
In an address to troops, Trump evoked his view that allies have been taking advantage of the U.S.
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Trump said. “We’re respected again as a nation."
“The nations of the region must step up and take more responsibility for their future," he added.
In defending his decision to leave Syria, he said that “we’re doing it right and we’re going to finish it off," referring to ISIS.
The president reportedly departed after spending about three hours at the base.
Trump was joined on the trip by National Security Advisor John Bolton, and they were met at Al Asad by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Sillman.
The surprise trip also comes as Trump will search for a new Defense Secretary, in the wake of James Mattis' resignation, which will take effect at the start of the new year.
The president has said the current deputy, Patrick Shanahan, will serve as the acting defense secretary.
Trump originally planned to spend Christmas at Mar-a-Lago, but stayed in the White House over the holiday instead with the government partially shut down. On Christmas Day he conducted conference calls with U.S. military commanders around the globe, thanking troops from the Oval Office.
It is unclear whether the unannounced trip to Iraq was always planned for the day after Christmas, or if it was planned once it became apparent the government was not close to reopening.