Pence works to reassure US allies in unannounced Iraq trip

Pence works to reassure US allies in unannounced Iraq trip

IRBIL, Iraq — Vice-President Mike Pence worked to reassure the United States’ Kurdish allies in an unannounced trip to Iraq on Saturday, 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, Pence landed in Irbil to meet with Iraqi Kurdistan President Nechirvan Barzani. The visit was meant to hearten the United States’ regional partners in the fight against the Islamic State group after the U.S. pulled troops from northern Syria, leaving the Kurdish allies in neighbouring Syria to face a bloody Turkish assault last month following the Trump-ordered withdrawal.

Earlier, Pence received a classified briefing at Iraq’s Al-Asad Air Base, from which U.S. forces are believed to have launched the operation in Syria last month that resulted in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Pence also spoke by phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

It was Pence’s second trip to the region in five weeks. Trump deployed him on a whirlwind trip to Ankara, Turkey, last month to negotiate a cease-fire after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seized on the U.S. withdrawal to launch the offensive on U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. Trump’s 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.”

Asked if the United States was facing a sense of betrayal from Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish allies over Trump’s actions in Syria, Pence said both groups, including Syrian Kurdish forces “who fought alongside us,” had no doubts about the U.S. commitment to them. “It’s unchanging,” Pence said.

A senior U.S. official said Pence’s visit was also meant to reassure the many Americans who have long supported the region’s Kurds that the Trump administration remained committed to the alliance. The visit was also designed to show Pence’s focus on foreign policy as Washington is gripped by the drama of impeachment.

When the U.S. forces withdrew, Syria’s 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.

The Ankara agreement required Syrian Kurds to vacate a swath of territory in Syria along the Turkish border in an arrangement that largely solidified Turkey’s position and aims.

Pence hailed the cease-fire as the way to end the bloodshed caused by Turkey’s invasion. The deal includes a halt to American economic sanctions and no apparent long-term consequences for Turkey for its actions.

The Syrian-led Kurdish forces say the cease-fire is persistently violated and fighting raged Saturday between them and Turkey-backed forces outside the Syrian town of Ein Issa, once home to U.S. bases and the Kurdish administration.

A senior Syrian Kurdish official agreed on Saturday that the relationship remains unchanged, but was critical of Washington’s lack of response to Turkey’s violations of the cease-fire.

Limiting the U.S. partnership to military co-operation over a limited area with the Syrian Kurdish fighters, “while condoning the killing of civilians, is not a very honest relationship and co-operation,” the official, Ilham Ahmed, said.

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 honour 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 the Islamic State group, adding that his “visit at this particular time is an important indication of your continued support to Kurdistan and Iraq.”

The U.S. collaboration with the Iraqi Kurds has not changed in the wake of U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria. In neighbouring Syria, after declaring the near-complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, Trump decided that roughly 800 would stay to keep eastern Syria’s oil fields from falling back into the hands of the Islamic State.

Just years ago, the militant 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 Syrian Kurdish forces routed the last Islamic State territorial holdings. But the militant group, which arose from the remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq after that group’s defeat by U.S.-led forces in 2008, has ambitions to regenerate again. And it remains a dangerous threat in Iraq, Syria, 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.

While Trump has claimed that the U.S. was now “keeping” the oil in Syria, Pentagon officials indicated the U.S. presence is not intended to improve the oil infrastructure but to keep it in the hands of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

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, you’re 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.

Pence’s 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 Iraq’s mainly Shiite south to decry rampant government malfeasance and a lack of basic services despite Iraq’s oil wealth. The protests have exposed long-simmering resentment at Iran’s influence in the country, with protesters targeting Shiite political parties and militias with close ties to Tehran.

Pence spoke by phone with Abdul-Mahdi after the Iraqi leader declined an invitation to meet with Pence at the air base after security concerns prevented Pence from travelling into Baghdad. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller said Pence expressed support for a free, sovereign and independent Iraq — a subtle warning against Iranian influence in the country, which has weakened co-operation between the U.S. and Iraq.

Pence also encouraged the Iraqi government to show restraint with the protesters. According to one official, Abdul-Mahdi expressed regret for the violence and cast it as growing pains for the country and its security services, more used to war than democratic protest.

The leaderless, mass protests aim to sweep aside Iraq’s sectarian system imposed after the 2003 U.S. invasion and its political elite, including Abdul-Mahdi, blamed for massive corruption.

U.S. officials assess that the protests won’t subside unless Abdul-Mahdi’s government makes substantial concessions, potentially up to the resignation of the government and the calling of early elections.

Pence’s visit comes days after the release of hundreds of pages of purported Iranian intelligence documents detailing Iran’s extensive influence in Iraq.

The revelation came after dozens of demonstrators attacked the Iranian consulate in Karbala earlier in November, scaling concrete barriers and saying they rejected the influence of the neighbouring country in Iraqi affairs.

“We want to see an Iraq that is free from the malign influence of Iran, and is also respecting the rights and voices of all its people,” Pence said.

Just Posted

A representative for the office of Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Kaycee Madu says the new Red Deer drug treatment court is expected to be operational by the middle of 2022. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer drug treatment court expected to be up and running no later than mid-2022

The Government of Alberta expects the new Red Deer drug treatment court… Continue reading

Environment Canada says rain Tuesday evening will turn to snow. (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Expect wet snow Tuesday night central Alberta

Heavy wet snow could accumlate with the potential for broken tree branches

FILE - In this Thursday, April 29, 2021 file photo, giant bucket-wheel excavators extract coal at the controversial Garzweiler surface coal mine near Jackerath, west Germany. A report by the International Energy Agency on Tuesday, May 18, 2021 says immediate action is needed to reshape the world’s energy sector in order to meet ambitious climate goals by 2050. This includes ending investments in new coal mines, oil and gas wells. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
Energy agency: End new fossil fuel supply investments

IEA report sets out 400 steps to transform how energy is produced, transported and used

A man inspects the rubble of destroyed commercial building and Gaza health care clinic following an Israeli airstrike on the upper floors of a commercial building near the Health Ministry in Gaza City, on Monday, May 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Strike from Gaza kills 2 as Israel topples 6-story building

Latest attack from Gaza on Tuesday hits packaging plant

The RCMP logo is seen outside Royal Canadian Mounted Police “E” Division Headquarters, in Surrey, B.C., on Friday April 13, 2018. A review by the national spy watchdog has found inconsistencies when it comes to federal efforts to ensure information sharing with foreign agencies does not result in torture. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Spy watchdog calls for changes to ensure information-sharing does not lead to torture

Differences in federal departments stances when dealing with the same foreign agency creates concern

Red Deer musician Curtis Phagoo is glad the Alberta government is investing $2 million to help the province’s live music industry, but he would have liked the criteria to be expanded, so the money could be used as relief to cover revenue shortfalls. (Contributed photo by Cory Michaud)
Red Deer musicians welcome $2M in grants to help live music, but would have preferred relief program

The money is for future projects and can’t be used for retroactive expenses

Sheffield United’s Daniel Jebbison celebrates after scoring his side’s opening goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Everton and Sheffield United at Goodison Park in Liverpool, England, Sunday, May 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Alex Pantling/Pool via AP
Canadian teenager Daniel Jebbison turns heads with Premier League goal

Jebbison, 17, is the youngest player in Premier League history to score on his first start in England’s top tier

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Nathalie Emmanuel, left, and Vin Diesel in a scene from “F9.” (Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures via AP)
The blockbuster movie makes a comeback this summer

Last year, summer earnings were $176 million, down 96% from 2019

FILE - In this Feb. 3, 2021, file photo, exile Tibetans use the Olympic Rings as a prop as they hold a street protest against the holding of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, in Dharmsala, India. Groups alleging human-rights abuses in China are calling for a full boycott of the Beijing Olympics, which is sure to ratchet up pressure on the International Olympic Committee, athletes, sponsors, and sports federations. A coalition of activists representing Uyghurs, Tibetans, residents of Hong Kong and others, issued a statement Monday, May 17, 2021 calling for the “full boycott,” eschewing lesser measures like “diplomatic boycotts" and negotiations with the IOC or China. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia, File)
AP Exclusive: Full-blown boycott pushed for Beijing Olympics

AP Exclusive: Full-blown boycott pushed for Beijing Olympics

Canada's Eric Lamaze riding Fine Lady 5 during the CP International competition at the Spruce Meadows Masters in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Canada's most decorated show jumper has withdrawn from consideration for the Tokyo Olympics. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canadian show jumper Eric Lamaze withdraws from Tokyo short list

Canadian show jumper Eric Lamaze withdraws from Tokyo short list

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse questions a foul call during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers Monday, April 26, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. Nurse says it was the COVID-19 outbreak in March that spiked his team's chances for a post-season run.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Chris O'Meara
Nurse faces a busy off-season, much busier if Canada qualifies for Tokyo Olympics

Nurse faces a busy off-season, much busier if Canada qualifies for Tokyo Olympics

Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Danielle Goyette speaks to reporters during a press conference in Toronto on Friday, November 10, 2017. Goyette has been named director of player development for the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and their American Hockey League affiliate. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov
Hayley Wickenheiser, Danielle Goyette together again on Toronto Maple Leafs staff

Hayley Wickenheiser, Danielle Goyette together again on Toronto Maple Leafs staff

Most Read