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Vice President Mike Pence on surprise Iraq trip to reassure Kurds, greet troops

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IRBIL, Iraq — Vice President Mike Pence made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Saturday in the highest-level American trip since President Donald Trump ordered a pullback of U.S. forces in Syria two months ago.

Flying in a C-17 military cargo jet to preserve the secrecy of the visit to the conflict zone, Pence landed in Irbil to meet with Iraqi Kurdistan President Nechirvan Barzani. The visit was meant to reassure the U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State group after the U.S. pulled troops from northern Syria, leaving the Kurdish allies in neighboring Syria to face a bloody Turkish assault last month following the Trump-ordered withdrawal.

Earlier Pence received a classified briefing at Iraq’s Al-Asad Air Base, from which U.S. forces are believed to have launched the operation in Syria last month that resulted in the death of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Pence also spoke by phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

It was Pence’s second trip to the region in five weeks. Trump deployed him on a whirlwind trip to Ankara, Turkey, last month to negotiate a cease-fire after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seized on the U.S. withdrawal to launch an assault on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. Trump’s move had sparked some of the most unified criticism of his administration to date, as lawmakers in both parties accused Trump of forsaking longtime Kurdish allies and inviting Russia and Iran to hold even greater sway in the volatile region.

Pence said he welcomes “the opportunity on behalf of President Donald Trump to reiterate the strong bonds forged in the fires of war between the people of the United States and the Kurdish people across this region.”

A senior U.S. official said Pence’s visit was meant both to reassure Iraqi Kurds who remain allied with the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State group, as well as Americans who have long supported the Kurdish cause, that the Trump administration remained committed to the alliance. The visit was also designed to show Pence’s focus on foreign policy as Washington is gripped by the drama of impeachment.
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“Partisan politics and endless investigations have slowed things down in D.C.,” Pence said.

Pence’s visit to Iraq comes as the country has been plagued by widespread anti-corruption protests. At least 320 protesters have been killed and thousands have been wounded since the unrest began on Oct. 1, when demonstrators took to the streets in Baghdad and across Iraq’s mainly Shiite south to decry rampant government malfeasance and a lack of basic services despite Iraq’s oil wealth. The protests have exposed long-simmering resentment at Iran’s influence in the country, with protesters targeting Shiite political parties and militias with close ties to Tehran.

Pence spoke by phone with Abdul-Mahdi after the Iraqi leader declined an invitation to meet with Pence at the air base after security concerns prevented Pence from traveling into Baghdad. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller said Pence expressed support for a free, sovereign and independent Iraq — a subtle warning against Iranian influence in the country, which has weakened cooperation between the U.S. and Iraq.


Andrew Harnik / AP
Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence wave as they take the stage to speak to troops at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. The visit is Pence’s first to Iraq and comes nearly one year since President Donald Trump’s surprise visit to the country.

Pence also encouraged the Iraqi government to show restraint with the protesters. According to one official, Abdul-Mahdi expressed regret for the violence and cast it as growing pains for the country and its security services, more used to war than democratic protest.

Iraq’s government has struggled to respond to the protests, and recent efforts by Parliament to pass reform bills fell short of calming the unrest. Parliament convened on Tuesday and voted on a bill to cancel the financial privileges of officials and conducted a first reading of a much-anticipated electoral reform bill, but these did not appease protesters.
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