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Pence reassures Kurds, discusses protests with PM in surprise Iraq visit

The US vice president reiterated Washington's support to its Kurdish allies
US Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen help to serve a Thanksgiving meal to US troops at Camp Flores on Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on 23 November 2019 (Reuters)

US Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday made an unannounced visit to Iraq, where he met with the president of the Kurdistan region to reaffirm Washington's support after the US largely pulled out of Syria.

Pence's trip comes as Iraq is being rocked by mass protests across the country over corruption, unemployment and poor services.  

The vice president did not schedule any meetings with top Iraqi officials, but held a phone call with Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi to discuss the violent unrest, in which at least 350 people have been killed since the protests started on 1 October.

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"We spoke about the unrest that's been taking place in recent weeks here in Iraq," Pence told reporters. "He assured me that they were working to avoid violence or the kind of oppression we see taking place even as we speak in Iran.

"He pledged to me that they would work to protect and respect peaceful protesters as... part of the democratic process here in Iraq."

One protester was shot dead in the capital Baghdad on Saturday and dozens more were wounded in clashes with security forces around the country, a medical source told AFP news agency.

On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Baghdad that Washington is prepared to slap impose sanctions on any Iraqi officials found to be corrupt and on individuals behind the deaths and wounding of protesters.

Reassurance for Kurds

Pence met with the president of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region Nechirvan Barzani in Irbil to relay a message of US support and partnership with Kurdish fighters.

Last month, the US withdrew its troops from northern Syria, where it was supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in its fight against the Islamic State, paving the way for a Turkish military offensive in northeast against Kurdish forces.

The move has rattled US allies and the political establishment in Washington, with many describing the move as a betrayal to the forces who helped defeat IS. Pence had since brokered a pause in the Turkish incursion to allow time for Kurdish fighters to pull back.

Pence, who was on his first visit to Iraq, told Barzani that he wanted to "reiterate the strong bonds forged in the fires of war between the people of the United States and the Kurdish people across this region".

"I don't think there was any confusion now among the leadership here in the Kurdish region that President [Donald] Trump's commitment to our allies here in Iraq as well as to those in the Syrian defence forces, the Kurdish forces who fought along side us, is unchanging,” he said when asked whether he had to smooth over any sense of betrayal from the Kurds, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, US Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie said on Saturday that some 500 US personnel in eastern Syria are expected to resume operations against IS in coming days and weeks.

Pence and his wife, Karen, also visited the Al Asad Air Base where they served a traditional Thanksgiving meal to around 700 US troops.

The US has 5,200 troops stationed in Iraqi bases across the country.