U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has sought to reassure Iraqi Kurdish leaders during a surprise visit to the country, but he will not travel to Baghdad to meet with officials of the American-backed national government, citing security concerns.
Pence, in his first trip to the country as vice president, on November 23 visited U.S. forces at the Ain Al-Asad base in western Iraq's Anbar Province and traveled to Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region.
However, a U.S. official said that Pence "couldn't go to Baghdad for security reasons" amid the continuing anti-government protests in the capital and across the south of the country.
AFP quoted Iraqi officials as saying that Pence spoke to Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi by telephone.
"There won't be a meeting as they had a phone call. The prime minister isn't going to Anbar" to meet Pence, an Iraqi source said.
Meanwhile, President Barham Saleh's office told AFP it was not informed of Pence’s visit to Iraq and had no meeting planned. The U.S. Embassy declined to comment.
The visit was similar to one made a year ago by U.S. President Donald Trump, who made an unannounced stop at the Ain Al-Asad base just after Christmas, meeting with American troops but not with officials in Baghdad.
Representatives from rival parties in the Iraqi parliament complained that Trump's three-hour visit did not include a face-to-face meeting with Mahdi, which they considered an insult and an affront to the country’s sovereignty.
During his call with Iraqi leaders, Pence "encouraged the Iraqi government to disassociate itself with Iran," a U.S. official told AFP.
Shi’ite Iran has much influence inside Shi’ite-majority Iraq and has backed militias fighting against Islamic State and Al-Qaeda extremists, but Iraqi protesters have increasingly expressed anger about what they see as excessive Iranian interference in the country.
Baghdad has attempted to balance relations with Tehran and Washington, which provides crucial military and economic support and has also played a key role in defeating extremists in Iraq.
Pence’s visit comes after NATO member Turkey last month launched an offensive into northeastern Syria after Trump announced a withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Many Syrian Kurds expressed anger over what they called a betrayal by the United States, echoing an allegation made by critics of the president at home.
Nechirvan Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region in Iraq, thanked Pence for U.S. military support in the fight against Islamic State extremists, adding that his “visit at this particular time is an important indication of your continued support to Kurdistan and Iraq.”
Pence said he welcomed the opportunity on behalf of 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.”
The United States has played a key role in allowing Kurds to establish their semiautonomous region in northern Iraq since the ouster of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.