Vice President Mike Pence visited Iraq on Saturday to reassure Iraqi Kurds of U.S. support after President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria drew criticism that Washington had betrayed its Kurdish allies there.
Pence's trip, which included a visit with Nechirvan Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region in Iraq, and a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, also served to bolster U.S. troops ahead of next Thursday's Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.
The vice president and his wife, Karen, served a traditional meal to U.S. military personnel during the visit.
Last month Turkey launched an offensive into northeastern Syria after Trump's abrupt decision to withdraw all 1,000 U.S. troops there. Pence brokered a pause with Ankara to allow time for Kurdish fighters to withdraw.
That truce aimed to mitigate the crisis sparked by Trump's announcement, which U.S. Republican and Democratic lawmakers criticized as a betrayal of Kurdish allies aligned with Washington in the fight against Islamic State.
Pence's trip on Saturday to the semi-autonomous region in Iraq was meant to show U.S. appreciation for Kurdish sacrifices and affirm a message of U.S. support and partnership with Kurdish fighters.
"I also welcome 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," Pence told Barzani at the beginning of their meeting.
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Underscoring Pence’s message that American military partnership with Syrian Kurdish forces is ongoing, the U.S.-led coalition said Saturday that its forces, along with hundreds of Syrian Kurdish commandos, had jointly carried out the largest operation against the Islamic State in eastern Syria since the U.S. pullback began in early October.
Friday’s operation in southeastern Syria’s Deir el-Zour province captured dozens of Islamic State militants, cleared enemy compounds and seized weapons and explosives, the U.S.-led coalition said. Operations against Islamic State militants in Syria had been disrupted, but not totally halted, because of the U.S. troop pullback and Turkey’s invasion.
The vice president made two stops during his short trip, which was previously unannounced for security reasons.
Traveling on a military cargo plane to conceal his identity, Pence landed first at Al Asad Air Base northwest of Baghdad and held a call with Abdul Mahdi to discuss the unrest and protests over corruption that have rocked the country.
Hundreds have been killed since early October when mass protests began in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Protesters want to dislodge a political class they view as corrupt and beholden to foreign powers at the expense of Iraqis who suffer from poverty and poor healthcare.
U.S. officials said Pence delivered a message to the Iraqi prime minister that Iraq should disassociate itself from Iran, a U.S. foe, and uphold the freedom of speech for protesters without fear of violence.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday the United States was prepared to impose sanctions on any Iraqi officials found to be corrupt as well as those responsible for the deaths and wounding of peaceful protesters.