Pompeo attempts to assuage concerns in Baghdad

The US secretary of state said talks reflected “a common understanding that the battle against Daesh… and the fight to counter Iran is real and important.”
Thursday 10/01/2019
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, walks alongside Iraq's Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbusi, right, in Baghdad, Iraq, during a Middle East tour, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (AP)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, walks alongside Iraq's Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbusi, right, in Baghdad, Iraq, during a Middle East tour, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (AP)

WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Iraq on January 9, meeting with the country’s top three political leaders and with Kurdish officials to assure them that the United States continues to support Iraq and the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Pompeo stopped in Baghdad and Erbil as part of his unprecedented tour of nine Middle East nations aimed at reassuring US allies that were startled by President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement December 19 that he would withdraw US troops from Syria. No timetable for the pullout has been set.

“It was a great set of conversations, a great set of partners and a common understanding that the battle against Daesh — to counter Daesh — and the fight to counter Iran is real and important and something each of us needs to be active participants in,” Pompeo  said after meeting with members of the Iraqi Kurdistan government. Pompeo’s use of the word Daesh, an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, indicates the extent to which his message is aimed at the Arab world and not Americans, who are paying little attention to the Middle East as large parts of the US federal government remain shut down over a budget dispute.

Pompeo’s meetings in Baghdad with Iraq’s prime minister, president and legislative leader sought to reassure officials who were angered by Trump’s December 26 trip to Iraq in which he visited US troops but did not meet Iraqi leaders and made inflammatory comments about the US troop presence in Iraq. The Iran-backed Dawa Party said at the time that Trump’s visit showed “no respect for the country’s sovereignty or the norms of diplomacy.”

A State Department release shortly after Pompeo’s meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul al-Mahdi said Pompeo emphasised “the US commitment to Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Pompeo also agreed the United States would continue to work with Iraqi Security Forces “to ensure ISIS’ lasting defeat throughout the region.”

In meeting with Iraqi President Barham Salih, Pompeo emphasised “the importance of Iraq as a strategic partner in the region,” according to a State Department release. And Pompeo told Iraq’s Council of Representatives Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi that the United States was committed to “addressing Iraq’s security challenges, including the continuation of our security partnership with Iraqi Security Forces,” the State Department said.

The US plan to remove its roughly 2,000 troops from north-eastern Syria has raised concerns in Iraq that Trump will order the withdrawal of 5,200 US troops there that helped oust ISIS from large swaths of northern Iraq. “We will need the support of the US,” Salih told reporters after his meeting with Pompeo, according to a pool news report. “ISIS is defeated militarily, but [the] mission is not accomplished.”

In Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, Pompeo faced another challenge, reassuring Kurds that the United States would not abandon them in Syria as they have helped fight ISIS in Syria. The US troop withdrawal from Syria raised concerns that Turkey would move into north-eastern Syria and attack the Kurdish militias.

The White House national security adviser, John Bolton, traveled to Turkey on January 8 but left without meeting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who vowed to push Kurdish fighters back from the Syria-Turkey border.

“These have been folks that have fought with us and it’s important that we do everything we can to ensure that those folks that fought with us are protected,” Pompeo said, referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara calls a terrorist group.