BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Tuesday and met Iraq’s prime minister and other top officials to discuss the safety of Americans in Iraq and explain U.S. security concerns amid rising Iranian activity.
The visit came two days after U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said the United States was deploying the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and a bomber task force to the region because of a “credible threat by Iranian regime forces”.
Washington has ramped up sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program in recent months and designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group.
“We talked to them about the importance of Iraq ensuring that it’s able to adequately protect Americans in their country,” Pompeo told reporters after meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
Abdul Mahdi said the United States was an important strategic partner for Iraq, but stressed that Baghdad was continuing to seek a balanced relationship with all of its “friends and neighbours, including neighbouring Iran”.
“Iraq is building its relationships with all on the basis of putting Iraq’s interests first,” said a statement from his office released on Wednesday.
Pompeo said the purpose of the meeting was to also let Iraqi officials know more about “the increased threat stream that we had seen” so they could effectively protect U.S. forces.
Pompeo said he expressed U.S. support for Iraqi sovereignty, noting: “We don’t want anyone interfering in their country, certainly not by attacking another nation inside of Iraq.”
Asked before the meetings if there was a threat to the Baghdad government from Iran that raised U.S. concerns about Iraqi sovereignty, Pompeo said, “No, no, generally this has been our position since the national security strategy came out in the beginning of the Trump administration.”
Asked about the decision to move the aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the region, Pompeo said Washington wanted to defend its interests from the Iranian threat and ensure it had the forces necessary to accomplish that goal.
“The message that we’ve sent to the Iranians, I hope, puts us in a position where we can deter and the Iranians will think twice about attacking American interests,” Pompeo said, noting that the U.S. intelligence was “very specific” about “attacks that were imminent.”
He said the United States has urged Iraq to move quickly to bring Iranian-influenced independent militias under central government control, noting that they make Iraq “a less stable nation.”
Pompeo arrived in Britain on Wednesday, where he will hold talks with Prime Minister Theresa May and other officials.
Before leaving Iraq, he also spoke to Iraqi officials about their energy and infrastructure needs, especially in the electricity, oil and natural gas sectors. He said they discussed ways to quickly move forward with projects that could help improve Iraqi lives.
Abdul Mahdi’s statement praised his government’s efforts in attracting investment, including an upcoming deal with ExxonMobil. On Tuesday, the premier said Iraq was close to signing a $53 billion, 30-year energy agreement with the company.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Additional reporting by Eric Beech in Washington and Raya Jalabi in Erbil; writing by John Davison and David Alexander; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Janet Lawrence)