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.
Pence said Kurdish forces “who fought alongside us” had no doubts about the U.S. commitment to them. “It’s unchanging,” he 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, 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.
Pence’s trip was his second to the region in five weeks. Trump deployed him on a whirlwind journey 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.
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.