U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met American troops and political leaders in Iraq on Wednesday to reassure them about a U.S. military withdrawal from Syria and warn that Washington’s arch-foe Iran remains a regional security threat.
The visit, which was not confirmed by the State Department until Pompeo left Baghdad, came on the second day of his Middle East tour, also taking in Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman.
His tour follows an increase in tensions between Washington and Tehran after the Trump administration reimposed sanctions and seeks to rally Arab allies to counter Iran’s sway, which is growing particularly in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in recent years.
In Baghdad, Pompeo met Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Hakim, Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi and President Barham Salih.
Pompeo said he was “very happy to be here,” in his meeting with Abdul Mahdi, adding that “the timing is good”, according to a U.S. media pool report.
A State Department statement said Pompeo had “underlined the U.S. commitment to Iraq’s sovereignty ... (and) discussed the recent territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria and the continuation of our cooperation with Iraqi Security Forces” during his meeting with Abdul Mahdi.
President Donald Trump met no Iraqi political leaders on a surprise visit to U.S. troops at the Al Asad Air Base outside Baghdad last month. The trip drew wide criticism in Iraq, especially from Iran-allied politicians who said it violated Iraqi sovereignty, and called for U.S. troops to leave Iraq.
President Salih, answering a reporter’s question on whether he wants the United States to keep troops, said Iraq “will need the support of the U.S.”, expressing his “gratitude to the U.S. for support over the years”.
“ISIS is defeated militarily but the mission is not accomplished,” Salih said, using the acronym for Islamic State.
Islamic State militants are still waging insurgent attacks in the north of the country and trying to make a comeback, analysts say, but violence has reduced significantly.
The United States keeps more than 5,200 troops in Iraq more than 15 years after its invasion of the country in 2003 which toppled Saddam Hussein. The U.S. military supported Iraq in defeating Islamic State militarily in 2017 with air strikes and special forces.
Reassurance over Syria withdrawal
Pompeo’s visit comes after Trump’s abrupt announcement last month that he will pull all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, which caused alarm among U.S. allies in the region.
Speaking ahead of the trip, a State Department official said the secretary would counter “false narratives surrounding the Syria decision” that the U.S. was abandoning the Middle East.
Asked on Tuesday about what would be discussed during a possible meeting with Pompeo, Abdul Mahdi said deepening Iraq’s relationship with the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.
“He’s an ally, he represents a friendly country,” Abdul Mahdi said of Pompeo on Tuesday. “We will raise those issues, and how to deal with regional issues altogether and deepen our economic and educational relations with the United States.”
Trump’s withdrawal order alarmed U.S. allies in the region. It also led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis over policy differences and Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy for the coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria.
Trump has not said, however, that he intends to withdraw American forces from Iraq.
During his visit to Iraq on Dec. 26 a meeting between Trump and Abdul Mahdi was cancelled due to a disagreement over the venue, and the men instead spoke by telephone.
Pompeo has refused to discuss the Syria withdrawal’s timing, but people with knowledge of discussions said Trump had been convinced that it should be done safely and in an orderly way.
The State Department statement said Pompeo and Abdul Mahdi discussed “U.S. support for Iraq’s energy independence,” a reference to Iraq’s heavy reliance on Iranian gas for its power grid.