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Pence visits Iraq to reassure Kurdish allies

Vice President Mike Pence and Iraqi Kurdish Region President Nechirvan Barzani, right, shake hands during a bilateral meeting at Erbil International Airport in Erbil, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. (Andrew Harnik / AP)
Vice President Mike Pence and Iraqi Kurdish Region President Nechirvan Barzani, right, shake hands during a bilateral meeting at Erbil International Airport in Erbil, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. (Andrew Harnik / AP)
By Jordan Fabian Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON – Vice President Mike Pence made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Saturday, where he met the president of the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region to reassure the longtime allies who fought in the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State.

In Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan region, the vice president said the U.S. hopes to keep a strong relationship with the Kurds that was shaken by President Donald Trump’s decision last month to withdraw forces from northeastern Syria.

“I also welcome the opportunity on behalf 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,” Pence said during his meeting with Kurdistan regional president Nechirvan Barzani.

Barzani, who had a red carpet rolled out for Pence outside their meeting site at the VIP area of Erbil International Airport, said through a translator that Pence’s visit “at this particular time is an important indication of your continued support to Kurdistan and Iraq.”

The trip, which was kept secret for security reasons until the end of Pence’s three-plus hour stop, doubled as a chance for Pence to visit with American soldiers ahead of next week’s Thanksgiving holiday. The vice president and second lady Karen Pence helped serve meals of turkey, ham, potatoes and stuffing to around 200 troops at two military installations.

While the trip drew Pence away from the impeachment in drama in Washington, he told U.S. troops that the House-led probe into Trump was holding up a spending package that includes the biggest pay raise for service members in nine years.

“You all know that partisan politics and endless investigations have slowed things down a bit in Washington, D.C.,” he told personnel gathered inside a hangar at Al Asad Air Base in Anbar province. “I’ll make you a promise: this president, this vice president, our administration will never stop fighting until we get you, our troops, the resources you need to accomplish your mission and defend this nation.”

The vice president’s visit comes just over a month after Trump dispatched him to Turkey to broker a cease-fire agreement between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kurdish-led militias in northern Syria.

Trump’s abrupt announcement that he would pull U.S. troops out of the area cleared the way for a Turkey’s military operation aimed at establishing a so-called safe zone. The Kurdish-led YPG militia in northeastern Syria fought in the anti-ISIS campaign but Ankara has labeled the group terrorists.

Pence requested to meet with Barzani during his Iraq trip, according to a senior administration official. Another senior administration official said Trump was strongly supportive of the visit. The stop in Iraqi Kurdistan has been planned since Pence’s trip to the Turkish capital of Ankara, the second official said.

The first official drew a distinction between the Kurdish factions in northern Syria and the Barzani-led Kurds in Iraq, but acknowledged that all groups were upset by the U.S. troop withdrawal. The official said the Erbil stop was also intended to assure an American political audience that the Trump administration hadn’t turned its back on the group that has supported the U.S. dating back to the Gulf War.

Republicans in Congress initially blasted Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, though some backed off their criticism following the cease-fire that was brokered after Trump announced some sanctions against Turkey. Trump’s withdrawal was nonetheless viewed as a slap in the face to the Kurds, who suffered heavy losses during the years-long fight against Islamic State.

Pence minimized the suggestion the U.S. had abandoned the Kurds. “I could tell in speaking to President Barzani and his team that they know the American people are with them,” he told reporters.

The visit comes at a precarious time not just for the Trump administration with the ongoing impeachment investigation, but also for Iraq. The country has been roiled by protests since October that have imperiled the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, which has responded with violence. More than 300 people have reportedly been killed and thousands have been injured.

“I reiterated our commitment – President Trump’s commitment – to an independent and sovereign Iraq,” Pence said. “We continue to be concerned about the malign influence of Iran across Iraq.”

Pence and Mahdi spoke by phone for around 20 minutes shortly after the vice president’s arrival in the country, according to Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short. Pence raised the protests during the call, urging the government to embrace demonstrators’ right to freedom of expression. He also pressed Mahdi to distance his country from Iran, whose influence the U.S. has sought to curb, Short said.

Pence also received a briefing on the overall security situation in Iraq at Al Asad from Army Lieutenant General Pat White, the top U.S. commander in the region, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller.

The vice president said the main point of his visit was greeting U.S. service members ahead of Thanksgiving. Pence shook hands and posed for photos with dozens of soldiers at Al Asad and at the Erbil airport, which has a U.S. military presence. Karen Pence met with a select group of female service members in Erbil.

The Pences drew loud cheers and chants of “USA, USA” from Army, Air Force and Marine service members when they emerged from the kitchen at an Al Asad mess hall – decorated with red, yellow, and orange streamers – carrying trays of turkey and sweet potatoes.

“I thought we’d bring Thanksgiving a little bit early,” Pence told the soldiers.

Saturday marked Pence’s first visit to Iraq as vice president. He traveled to Afghanistan in 2017. Trump last year made a Christmastime visit to U.S. troops at Al Asad Air Base, his first visit to a combat zone as commander-in-chief. Trump campaigned in 2016 on withdrawing American troops from the Middle East.

The war in Iraq officially ended in 2011 after the U.S. withdrew combat troops. Around 5,000 troops remain in the country to help with training and assisting local forces fighting Islamic State. Around 1,000 troops were stationed in Syria before Trump’s decision to withdraw them, though many still remain in other locations in the country.

The Pences arrived in Iraq at 11:23 a.m. local time Saturday aboard a C-17 cargo jet to preserve secrecy. After landing at Al Asad, Pence’s motorcade drove across the dusty runway past lines of unmanned drones and other military aircraft. Roughly a dozen curious troops who spotted the motorcade arrived at the building where Pence was briefed, but they were shooed away by another soldier.

Pence has made more than 10 trips to the Middle East since he was elected to the House in 2002, according to spokeswoman Katie Waldman. Presidents and members of Congress have visited the region regularly since the U.S. launched the war in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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