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On Iraq Visit, Pence Reassures Kurds, Discusses Protests with Prime Minister

On Iraq Visit, Pence Reassures Kurds, Discusses Protests with Prime Minister

Saturday, 23 November, 2019 - 13:15
US Vice President Mike Pence delivers remarks to US troops at a US military facility at Erbil International Airport in Erbil, Iraq November 23, 2019. (Reuters)

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.

A protester was killed on Saturday and dozens were wounded amid ongoing clashes in central Baghdad.

Security and medical officials said the protester died when security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse crowds in Rasheed Street on the third day of violent clashes that have so far left 15 dead and over 100 wounded.

Clashes are focused on Rasheed Street near the strategic Ahrar Bridge.

Protesters have occupied part of three bridges — Ahrar, Jumhuriya and Sinak — in a standoff with security forces.

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.

Support for Kurds

The vice president went on to Erbil in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, seeking to show US appreciation for Kurdish sacrifices and affirm a message of US support and partnership with Kurdish fighters.

Pence told Barzani at the beginning of their meeting at Erbil airport that he wanted on Trump’s behalf 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”.

Last month Turkey launched an offensive into northeastern Syria after Trump’s abrupt decision 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 ISIS.

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 Trump’s commitment to our allies here in Iraq as well as to those in the Syrian Defense Forces, the Kurdish forces who fought alongside us, is unchanging.”

Pence and his wife, Karen, served a traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey, cranberry sauce and other fixings to some 700 troops at the Al Asad Air Base, which Trump visited in a similar surprise trip last year.

Pence, on his first trip to Iraq as vice president, did not to go Baghdad to meet the prime minister personally because of safety concerns related to the protests, a US official said.

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