Vice-presidents visit was meant to reassure allies in the fight against Isis and show Pences focus on foreign policy amid impeachment inquiry
Mike Pence made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Saturday, the highest-level American to visit since Donald Trump ordered a pullback of US forces in neighbouring Syria two months ago.
After flying in a C-17 military cargo jet to the conflict zone, the vice-president landed in Erbil to meet the Iraqi Kurdistan president, Nechirvan Barzani. The visit was meant to reassure US allies in the fight against the Islamic State, after Syrian Kurds suffered under a bloody Turkish assault last month.
Pence also received a classified briefing at Iraqs al-Asad airbase, from which US forces launched the operation in Syria last month that resulted in the death of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and spoke by phone with the Iraqi prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
Pence told reporters he and Abdul-Mahdi spoke about the unrest thats been taking place in recent weeks here in Iraq. He assured me that they were working to avoid violence or the kind of oppression we see taking place even as we speak in Iran.
He pledged to me that they would work to protect and respect peaceful protesters as … part of the democratic process here in Iraq.
Hundreds have been killed since early October when mass protests began in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Protesters want to dislodge a political class they view as corrupt and beholden to foreign powers.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday the US was prepared to impose sanctions on any Iraqi officials found to be corrupt as well as those responsible for the deaths and wounding of peaceful protesters.
Pences trip gave the Trump administration a chance to show it is focused on foreign policy even as impeachment hearings consume Washington. Pence said he reiterated Trumps commitment to an independent and sovereign Iraq.
It was Pences second trip to the region in five weeks. Trump deployed him on whirling trip to Ankara, Turkey, last month to negotiate a ceasefire after the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoan, seized on the US withdrawal to launch an assault on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
Trumps move prompted lawmakers in both parties to accuse the president of forsaking allies and inviting Russia and Iran to hold even greater sway in the region.
We continue to be concerned about the malign influence of Iran across Iraq, Pence said on Saturday.
He also said he welcomed 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 US official said Pences visit was meant to reassure Iraqi Kurds who remain allied with the US in the fight against Isis, as well as Americans who have long supported the Kurdish cause, that the administration remains committed.
Asked if he had to smooth over any sense of betrayal, Pence said: I dont think there was any confusion now among the leadership here in the Kurdish region that President Trumps commitment to our allies here in Iraq as well as to those in the Syrian defence forces, the Kurdish forces who fought alongside us, is unchanging.
Weeks after declaring the near-complete withdrawal of US forces from Syria, Trump decided that roughly 800 would stay to keep eastern Syrian oil fields from falling back into the hands of Isis. Trump also agreed to keep about 150 US troops at a base in southern Syria as a check on Iranian influence.
While Trump has claimed that the US is keeping the oil, Pentagon officials have indicated the US presence is intended to keep the oil infrastructure in the hands of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Pence said the US-Kurdish alliance was meant to ensure that Isis or another extremist group will not be able to gain a foothold in this region again.
Joined by his wife, Karen Pence, the vice-president also greeted US troops ahead of Thanksgiving, serving turkey and accompaniments to hundreds at the two locations.
While you come from the rest of us, youre the best of us, Pence told service members in a dusty hangar at al-Asad. He said the Trump administration was working to secure another pay increase for the armed services and suggested the impeachment inquiry was slowing it down.
Partisan politics and endless investigations have slowed things down in DC, Pence said.