ERBIL: Vice President Mike Pence visited Iraq on Saturday to reassure Iraqi Kurds of US support after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria drew criticism that Washington had betrayed its Kurdish allies there.
His trip included a visit with Nechirvan Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region in Iraq, and also a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to discuss the unrest and protests over corruption that have rocked the country.
The visit also served to bolster US troops ahead of next Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.
Pence made two stops during his short trip, which was previously unannounced for security reasons. Traveling on a military cargo plane, he landed first at Al Asad Air Base northwest of Baghdad and talked by phone with Abdul Mahdi.
We spoke about the unrest that’s been taking place in recent weeks here in Iraq,” Pence told reporters. “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 at the expense of Iraqis who suffer from poverty and poor healthcare.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday the United States 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.
The trip gave the Trump administration a chance to show it is working on foreign policy even as impeachment hearings led by Democrats consume Washington.
Pence said he reiterated Trump's commitment to an independent and sovereign Iraq. We continue to be concerned about the malign influence of Iran across Iraq, he said.
The vice president went on to Erbil in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, seeking to show US apprecicision to withdraw all 1,000 US troops there. Pence brokered a pause with Ankara to allow time for Kurdish fighters to withdraw.
That truce aimed to mitigate the crisis sparked by Trump’s announcement, which US Republican and Democratic lawmakers criticized as a betrayal of Kurdish allies aligned with Washington in the fight against the militant Islamic State group.
Asked whether he had to smooth over any sense of betrayal from the Kurds, Pence said: I don’t 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.
Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2019