Pence makes sur­prise trip to Iraq to re­as­sure al­lies

VP says Amer­i­can com­mit­ment to Kurds ‘un­chang­ing’

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD - By Zeke Miller

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 air­craft, Pence landed in Ir­bil, cap­i­tal of Iraq’s semi­au­tonomous Kur­dish re­gion, 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 Amer­ica’s Kur­dish al­lies there to face a bloody cross-border Turk­ish as­sault last month.

Asked by re­porters 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.

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.

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 el­Zour 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.

Pence’s trip Satur­day was his sec­ond to the re­gion in five weeks. Trump de­ployed him on a whirl­wind jour­ney to Ankara, Turkey, last month to ne­go­ti­ate a cease­fire 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.

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 cease­fire as the way to end the blood­shed caused by Turkey’s in­va­sion.

But Syr­ian-led Kur­dish forces say the cease-fire is per­sis­tently vi­o­lated. 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 was crit­i­cal Satur­day of Wash­ing­ton’s lack of re­sponse to Turkey’s vi­o­la­tions of the cease-fire.

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

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.

AN­DREW HARNIK/AP

Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, left, and his wife, Karen Pence, sec­ond from right, serve turkey for the Thanks­giv­ing hol­i­day to troops on Satur­day at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq.

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