President Donald Trump made an unannounced trip to Iraq on Wednesday, marking the first time he has visited troops in a combat zone while commander in chief.
The president and first lady met with troops stationed at Al Asad Airbase in the country's northwest, posing for selfies and photographs with service members who were spending the holidays away from their families.
Accompanied by national security adviser John Bolton, they also met with military leaders.
"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," press secretary Sarah Sanders wrote on Twitter.
Trump told reporters he wanted to go to Iraq to "pay my respects" to the troops there.
The president also delivered an address to troops in a large hangar before a US flag.
"We're no longer the suckers, folks," Trump told the service members. "We're respected again as a nation."
The secretive trip came amid a government shutdown and less than a week after Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned following the president's decision to withdraw US troops from Syria and Afghanistan. The US envoy for the global coalition to fight ISIS, Brett McGurk, also stepped down in protest against the president's decision.
Trump has claimed he was ending the US mission in Syria because ISIS has been defeated. But his decision sent shockwaves through allies, military officials, and even Republicans who say the threat is not yet over and that withdrawing would cede Syria to Iranian and Russian influence.
The president has not said he plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, where more than 5,000 service members are helping local Iraqi forces battle ISIS fighters.
He told the military personnel in Iraq that it was time to leave Syria.
"Eight years ago, we went there for three months and we never left," he said. "Now, we're doing it right and we're going to finish it off."
Trump described how he gave officials multiple "extensions" to leave the war-torn country.
"They said again, recently, can we have more time? I said, 'Nope,'" he said. "The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world. It's not fair when the burden is all on us, the United States."
Trump has received criticism for waiting this long into his presidency to visit combat troops. President Obama visited troops in Iraq four months after his inauguration in 2009, while he made a total of four visits to Afghanistan during his tenure in the Oval Office, according to the New York Times.
Asked by Fox News last month why he was yet to do so, Trump indicated that White House officials were planning a trip.
"There are things that are being planned," he said. "We don't want to talk about it because of security reasons and everything else."
He told reporters other plans for the trip had been canceled "for security reasons because people were finding out."
Trump had been scheduled to spend 16 days at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida but opted to remain in Washington, DC, due to the government shutdown. It was not clear whether the military visit had been organized prior to the president's schedule change.