U.S. Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Iraq on November 23 on an unannounced visit to reassure Iraqi Kurds of U.S. support after President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria.
Pence landed in Irbil to meet with Nechirvan Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region in Iraq. He also spoke by phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi whose government is facing public unrest fueled by frustrations over corruption. Pence also met with U.S. troops at an air base ahead of next week’s Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.
Pence’s visit comes after Turkey last month launched an offensive into northeastern Syria after Trump’s announced withdrawal. That move prompted Syrian Kurds -- seeking protection from Turkey -- to invite Syrian government and Russian forces into parts of northeastern Syria. More are now deploying along large parts of the border region under a Russian-Turkish deal, including to at least one former U.S. garrison in northern Syria. Trump later agreed to keep about 150 U.S. troops at a base in southern Syria as a check on Iranian influence in the region.
Barzani 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.”
In his call with Abdul Mahdi, Pence discussed the unrest and protests over corruption that have rocked the country.
At least 320 protesters have been killed and thousands more have been wounded since the unrest erupted in Iraq -- but mainly in the Shi’ite south -- on October 1 over corruption and a lack of opportunities in the oil-rich Middle East country.
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.
Pence also urged the Iraqi government to show restraint with the protesters. According to one official, Mahdi voiced regret for the violence and suggested it was the result of growing pains for the country’s security services, more used to war than democratic protest.
Pence, accompanied by his wife, Karen, also served a turkey to hundreds of troops in Iraq.
“While you come from the rest of us, you’re the best of us,” Pence told service members at the Al-Asad Air Base northwest of Baghdad.
Pence Voices U.S. Support To Wary Kurds In Iraq