Pence on Surprise Iraq Trip to Reassure Kurds, Greet Troop

ERBIL, Iraq—Vice President Mike Pence made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Saturday in the highest-level American trip since President Donald Trump ordered a pullback of U.S. forces in Syria two months ago.

Flying in a C-17 military cargo jet to preserve the secrecy of the visit to the conflict zone, Pence landed in Erbil to meet with Iraqi Kurdistan President Nechirvan Barzani. The visit was meant to reassure the U.S. allies in the fight against the ISIS terrorist group after Syrian Kurds suffered under a bloody Turkish assault last month following the Trump-ordered withdrawal. Earlier he received a classified briefing at Iraqs Al-Asad Air Base, from which U.S. forces launched the operation in Syria last month that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and spoke by phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

It was Pences second trip to the region in five weeks after Trump deployed him on whirling trip to Ankara, Turkey, last month to negotiate a cease-fire after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seized on the U.S. withdrawal to launch an assault on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. Trumps move had sparked some of the most unified criticism of his administration to date, as lawmakers in both parties accused Trump of forsaking longtime Kurdish allies and inviting Russia and Iran to hold even greater sway in the volatile region.

Pence said he welcomes “the opportunity on behalf of President Donald 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.”

A senior U.S. official said Pences visit was meant both to reassure Iraqi Kurds who remain allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS, as well as Americans who have long supported the Kurdish cause, that the Trump administration remained committed to the alliance. The visit was also designed to show Pences focus on foreign policy as Washington is gripped by the drama of impeachment.

When the U.S. forces withdrew, Syrias Kurds—seeking protection from their No. 1 enemy Turkey—invited Syrian government and Russian forces into parts of northeastern Syria where they had not set foot in years. 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.

Mike Pence and wife
Mike Pence and wife
Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence arrive with turkey to serve to troops at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq on Nov. 23, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

The Ankara agreement required the Kurds to vacate a swath of territory in Syria along the Turkish border in an arrangement that largely solidified Turkeys position and aimst.

Pence hailed the cease-fire as the way to end the bloodshed caused by Turkeys invasion, though he remained silent on whether it amounted to a second abandonment of Americas former Kurdish allies, many of whom are branded as terrorists by Ankara. The deal includes a halt to American economic sanctions and no apparent long-term consequences for Turkey for its actions.

On Nov. 13, Trump feted Erdogan with a White House visit over the objection of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who argued Erdogan should be denied the honor of a West Wing visit in the aftermath of the invasion and because of his decision to purchase Russian-made surface-to-air missiles over the objection of NATO allies.

Barzani thanked Pence for the U.S. military support in the fight against ISIS, adding that his “visit at this particular time is an important indication of your continued support to Kurdistan and Iraq.”

Weeks after declaring the near-complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, Trump decided that roughly 800 would stay to keep eastern Syrias oil fields from falling back into the hands of ISIS.

Trump Watches Raid On Abu Bakr al-Baghdadis Compound
Trump Watches Raid On Abu Bakr al-Baghdadis Compound President Donald Trump is joined by Vice President Mike Pence (2nd L), National Security Advisor Robert OBrien (L), Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (3rd R), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Mark A. Milley (2nd R) and Brig. Gen. Marcus Evans, Deputy Director for Special Operations on the Joint Staff in the Situation Room of the White House, monitoring developments in the U.S. Special Operations forces raid that took out ISIS terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on Oct. 26, 2019. (Shealah Craighead/The White House via Getty Images)

Just years ago, the terrorist group seized control of vast stretches of Syria and Iraq, with its extremist ideology spreading from its self-declared “caliphate” across the globe. In March, American troops and Kurdish forces routed the last ISIS territorial holdings. But the terrorist group, which arose from the remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq after that groups defeat by U.S.-led forces in 2008, has ambitions to regenerate again. And it remains a dangerous threat in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.

Trump also agreed to keep about 150 U.S. troops at a base in southern Syria as a check on Iranian influence in the region.

Pence said the U.S. and Kurdish alliance was meant to ensure that ISIS or another extremist group “will not be able to gain a foothold in this region again.”

Pence, joined on the trip by his wife, Karen Pence, also greeted U.S. troops ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, serving turkey and accompaniments to hundreds of troops at the two locations.

“While you come from the rest of us, youre the best of us,” Pence told service members in a dusty hangar at Al-Asad. He said the Trump administration is working to secure another pay increase for the armed services and suggested the ongoing impeachment inquiry in Washington was slowing the way.

“Partisan politics and endless investigations have slowed things down in D.C.,” Pence said.

Mike Pence arriving in Iraq 1
Mike Pence arriving in Iraq 1 Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence, second from left, serve turkey to troops at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq on Nov. 23, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

Pences visit to Iraq comes as the country has been plagued by widespread anti-corruption protests. At least 320 protesters have been killed and thousands have been wounded since the unrest began on Oct. 1, when demonstrators took to the streets in Baghdad and across Iraqs mainly Shiite south to decry rampant government malfeasance and a lack of basic services despite Iraqs oil wealth. The protests have exposed long-simmering resentment at Irans influence in the country, wiRead More – Source