BAGHDAD - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called off a planned visit to Germany and instead made an unannounced trip to Iraq on Tuesday, a day after the Trump administration said Iran posed a growing threat to U.S. forces and interests in the Middle East.
Pompeo spent about four hours on the ground, meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraqi President Barham Salih and other officials, before departing for London.
Prior to landing in Baghdad, Pompeo told reporters he canceled his scheduled stop in Berlin to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel and flew to Iraq due to indications that "Iran is escalating their activity."
"I wanted to go to Baghdad to speak with the leadership there, to assure them that we stood ready to continue to ensure that Iraq was a sovereign, independent nation," Pompeo said.
He also said the United States would continue to work with other partners in the region, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf Arab states, that also "want to see a free, independent, sovereign Iraq."
Washington has long sought to counter Iran's influence in Iraq and has appealed to Arab allies to bolster their engagement with Baghdad.
The Trump administration said on Monday that it had expedited the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group and sent an Air Force bomber squadron to the Persian gulf due to intelligence reports indicating U.S. forces were at a heightened risk from Iran and its proxies.
The U.S. secretary of state said his German counterpart, Foreign Minister Maas, was "most gracious" about his change in plans and "understood completely."
Pompeo also said he expected to discuss business deals with Iraq that would allow the country to reduce its dependence on electricity from neighboring Iran.
The State Department kept the trip to Iraq secret in advance and did not allow journalists traveling with Pompeo to report on his visit until they had departed Baghdad.
The visit came at a moment of rising tensions between Washington and Tehran, one year since President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers. The agreement imposed strict limits on Iran's nuclear program in return for easing U.S. and international sanctions. After pulling out of the deal, Trump has reimposed U.S. economic sanctions on Tehran, including measures designed to cut off Iran's oil exports.
Iranian diplomats were due to meet European foreign ministers in Brussels on Wednesday amid reports in Iranian media that the regime plans to scale back its compliance with the nuclear deal, possibly stepping up its enrichment of uranium.