Pence in Kurdistan region and US base in Iraq for surprise visit

Pence’s visit is meant to shore up confidence in the US in the strategic region

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks to reporters at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, October 17, 2019. (photo credit: HUSEYIN ALDEMIR/REUTERS)
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks to reporters at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, October 17, 2019.
US Vice President Mike Pence paid a visit to the Kurdistan region of Iraq and then to US troops on Saturday. His visit comes after a month of protests in Iraq and neighboring Iran, as well as a crisis in Syria where the US withdrew from a border area in October.
Pence’s visit is meant to shore up confidence in the US in the strategic region. Pence was invited months ago to visit and his trip comes at a key time for the US in the Middle East and with the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
At the Ain al-Assad base in Anbar province in western Iraq, Pence brought greetings from US President Donald Trump. He mentioned the “holiday week” of Thanksgiving and noted it was hard on the soldiers to be away from home. Trump spoke at the same base in December the day after Christmas in 2018.
At the time he had announced a US withdrawal from Syria and said troops would be re-deployed to Iraq and they would “watch Iran,” from Iraq and continue fighting ISIS.
However, a year later, more than 600 troops are still in Syria. After the US tried to withdraw from a part of Syria, Turkey invaded and attacked US partners among the Syrian Democratic Forces, causing concern in the US. Now the US is in eastern Syria protecting infrastructure and fighting ISIS. The US presence also keeps Iran out of this strategic area.
In Iraq, US troops returned in 2014 to fight ISIS at the invitation of the Iraqi government. However, in the last two years, there has been some controversy about the US presence as pro-Iranian factions in Iraq have called for the US to leave. Iraqi officials were non-plussed by Trump’s visit in 2018 which didn’t include meetings with Iraqi leaders. It appears Pence’s visit also has not included most Iraqi leaders, but did include key meetings in the autonomous Kurdistan region in Erbil where he met Kurdistan Regional Government President Nechirvan Barzani and Kurdistan region prime minister Masrour Barzani. The Kurdistan region is working with Baghdad to settle some issues of contention between the autonomous region and Baghdad. The Kurdistan region wants more financial support, and also wants to deal with disputed territories such as Kirkuk and oil revenues and funding for the region’s Peshmerga.
The US is key to supporting the Kurdistan region. Pence told US troops that his administration is committed to the soldiers and making US forces the best and most technologically advanced. He said he wouldn’t stop fighting until the troops had all the resources they needed.
Pence sought to reassure Kurds that the US had a strong bond with them formed I the “fires of war” and that the US would stand with the Kurdistan region. His visit came amid news in northern Syria that Turkish-backed extremist groups were attacking near Ain Issa and that those groups continue to shell the SDF-held areas. On Friday another 106 refugees arrived from Syria to the Kurdistan region in Iraq. There are now 16,783 refugees who have fled fighting in Syria, mostly Kurds forced from their homes by the attacks that began on October 9 after the US withdrew. Clearly Pence wanted to send a message that despite the crises the US would remain in the region.
In Baghdad the former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi bashed Pence’s visit, claiming that “Baghdad is the capital of Iraq, not Erbil.” Erbil is the capital of the Kurdistan region. When Abadi was Prime Minister, he worked with Iran and Shi’ite militias to attack the Kurdistan region in October 2017. Abadi enjoyed US support at the time among US officials who believed he was an Iraqi nationalist and the hope of Iraq, as well as a bulwark against Iran. Instead he empowered Iranian-backed militias and performed badly in 2018 elections.
Pence spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and also mentioned the protests in Iraq. He said he hopes the government in Baghdad would listen to the protesters and avoid repression. More than 350 protesters have been killed since early October.
Pence sought to show that the US was committed to the Kurdistan region of Iraq as well as continued partnership with the SDF in Syria. “It’s unchanging,” he said. The US-led anti-ISIS Coalition said the same thing last week. Pence was seeking to highlight support for both the Kurds and the coalition at the same time. He also mentioned Iran’s “malign influence” in Iraq. The US has been supportive of protests in neighboring Iran and has been sanctioning Iran to put pressure on it.
Pence also met with Deputy Prime Minister of the KRG, Qubad Talabani, in Erbil. Talabani is from the second largest party in the Kurdistan region, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The Barzanis lead the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the two most important parties in the Kurdish region and important parties in Iraqi politics as well.
The visit is important also because Pence has shown support for minorities in Iraq and Syria. He and allies have sought to highlight support for Christian minorities and other persecuted groups such as Yazidis. Last year, he met Naida Murad, a Yazidi woman who survived the ISIS genocide. Pence took a photo with Murad holding her book. Pence has been key to Trump’s recent discussions with Turkey and also regarding the raid to neutralize ISIS leader Baghdad in October. He also went to meet Turkish leaders on October 17 to try to get a ceasefire in northern Syria between Turkey and the SDF. At the time all he achieved was a pause in Ankara’s operations. Three days later, Russia obtained a ceasefire with Turkey. Pence did not look cheerful in the meetings in Turkey in October. He seemed more in his element in Erbil and with the troops during the surprise visit on November 23.