Pompeo attempts to assuage concerns in Baghdad

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said talks reflected “a common understanding that the battle against Daesh… and the fight to counter Iran [are] real and important.”
Sunday 13/01/2019
Iraqi soldiers stand guard near the Iraqi city of Qaim at the border with Syria, last November. (AFP)
In the crossfire. Iraqi soldiers stand guard near the Iraqi city of Qaim at the border with Syria, last November. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unannounced visit to Iraq, meeting with the country’s top political leaders and Kurdish officials to assure them that the United States continues to support Iraq and the fight against the Islamic State.

Pompeo stopped in Baghdad and Erbil January 9 as part of his unprecedented tour of nine Middle Eastern countries aimed at reassuring US allies that were startled by US President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement December 19 that he would withdraw US troops from Syria.

“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 [are] 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 (ISIS), 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 Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, President Barham Salih and parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi sought to reassure officials angered by Trump’s December 26 trip to Iraq in which he visited US troops but did not meet with Iraqi leaders and made inflammatory comments about the US military presence in Iraq.

The Iran-backed Islamic Dawa Party said at the time that Trump’s visit showed “no respect for the country’s sovereignty or the norms of diplomacy.”

A US State Department release said Pompeo emphasised “the US commitment to Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Pompeo agreed the United States would continue to work with Iraqi Security Forces “to ensure ISIS’s lasting defeat throughout the region.”

In meeting with Salih, Pompeo emphasised “the importance of Iraq as a strategic partner in the region,” the State Department release said. Pompeo told Halbousi 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 approximately 2,000 troops from north-eastern Syria raised concerns in Iraq that Trump would order the withdrawal of 5,200 US troops there that helped oust ISIS from large parts of northern Iraq.

“We will need the support of the US,” Salih said after meeting with Pompeo, a pool report said. “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 after they helped fight ISIS in Syria. The US troop withdrawal from Syria raised concerns that Turkey would move into Syria and attack Kurdish militias.

US national security adviser John Bolton travelled to Turkey January 8 but left without meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who vowed to push Kurdish fighters back from the Syria-Turkey border.

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