The US vice president visited Iraqi Kurdistan amid cries of US betrayal of its Kurdish allies in neighboring Syria. Washington withdrew its soldiers from near the Turkish border just as Ankara launched an incursion.
US Vice President Mike Pence made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Saturday in an attempt to reassure Iraqi Kurds of Washington's support despite the shock decision to withdraw American troops from neighboring northern Syria.
Pence met with Nechirvan Barzani, the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, reminding him of the "strong bonds forged in the fires of war between the people of the United States and the Kurdish people across this region."
Barzani, meanwhile, thanked Pence for the US military's backing in the fight against the "Islamic State" (IS) armed group, adding that his "visit at this particular time is an important indication of your continued support to Kurdistan and Iraq.''
Alliance on the rocks
The pair's remarks referenced the US-Syrian Kurdish alliance against IS which was weakened in October when US President Donald Trump decided to pull American troops from northern Syria.
The move drew criticism that Washington had betrayed its Kurdish allies, prompting them to seek support from Syrian President Bashar Assad's army and Russia.
Turkey, meanwhile, seized on the US withdrawal to launch its own offensive against what Syrian Kurds say is their ancestral lands in northeastern Syria.
Trump later ordered some 800 troops to remain in Syria to keep the country's oil fields from falling back into the hands of the "Islamic State." Pence, meanwhile, brokered a pause in Turkey's invasion to allow time for Kurdish fighters to withdraw.
Earlier on Saturday, Pence received a classified briefing at Iraq's Al-Asad Air Base, from where US forces launched the operation in Syria last month that resulted in the death of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Thanksgiving boost to troops
The vice president and his wife, Karen, also served a traditional Thanksgiving meal to American military personnel, ahead of the celebration on Thursday.
Pence, who traveled to the conflict zone on a military cargo plane to keep the trip secret, also had a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, although the pair were not due to meet.
Iraq has been rocked by mass anti-government protests since early last month against what demonstrators say is a corrupt political class that has become beholden to foreign powers since the 2003 US invasion.
At least 320 protesters have been killed and thousands have been wounded since the unrest began in Baghdad and across Iraq's mainly Shiite south.
Pence encouraged the Iraqi government to show restraint in its attempts to quell the unrest. Efforts by Parliament to pass reforms have so far failed to calm the protesters' anger.
mm/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters)