Pompeo Seeks to Soothe Strains With Surprise Visit to Iraq

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo made an unannounced trip to Baghdad on Wednesday, an effort that appeared aimed partly at patching up relations strained during President Donald Trump’s surprise visit last month.

Pompeo met Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi as well as Iraq’s foreign minister, parliament speaker and President Barham Salih, who said his country still needs U.S. support in the fight against Islamic State militants. America’s top diplomat also discussed ways of supporting Iraq’s energy independence, an issue tied to the U.S. effort to wean allies off Iranian energy sources.

The visit follows one by Trump that upset Iraqi lawmakers when the president visited troops at the Ain Al-Asad base west of Baghdad just after Christmas but didn’t meet with the prime minister. The two leaders spoke only by phone. That trip so infuriated some Iraqi lawmakers that they called for a review of the U.S. military presence in the country. Others called it a breach of diplomatic norms at the least.

Pompeo Seeks to Soothe Strains With Surprise Visit to Iraq

Pompeo’s team emphasized areas of agreement on this visit, saying the U.S. is committed to support “the new Iraqi government’s efforts to deliver stability, security and prosperity to all Iraqis,” according to deputy spokesman Robert Palladino.

Most American forces were withdrawn from Iraq in 2011, after years of political squabbling following the U.S. invasion in 2003. But thousands returned to help the Baghdad government fight Islamic State, after the jihadist group seized swaths of the country in 2013 and 2014.

Staying Put

The U.S. has about 5,000 troops in Iraq, and Trump said on his visit that he had no intention to bring them home as he’s signaled he’ll do with the 2,000 American soldiers in Syria. Trump, who drew bipartisan criticism over his abruptly announced plan to quit Syria, said U.S. forces would be able to use Iraq as a base for regional operations against adversaries.

Answering a question on whether he wants U.S. troops to stay, President Salih said: “We will need the support of the U.S.” Islamic State, he said, was “defeated militarily but mission is not accomplished.”

Turkey Tensions

The trip also follows National Security Adviser John Bolton’s visit to Turkey this week, where he was snubbed and then publicly criticized by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the shifting U.S. conditions for a withdrawal from Syria.

After visiting Erbil, the center of Iraq’s Kurdish population, Pompeo said Erdogan understands that the U.S. “has made commitments” to protect Kurdish forces in Syria. The Kurds there have fought alongside American troops, but Erdogan considers them terrorists.

Pompeo said the U.S. withdrawal from Syria will occur at a measured pace, with operations against Islamic State continuing as “we complete the mission of taking down the last elements of the caliphate before we depart.”

Pompeo’s visit to Iraq is part of a weeklong Middle East tour that began in Jordan and is expected to continue with stops in countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait. He was accompanied on the trip to Baghdad by his wife, Susan, the U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, and Major General Ricky Waddle, the assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.