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Pompeo makes surprise Baghdad stopover for talks with Iraqi leaders

Top diplomat's arrival as part of regional tour comes days after Trump was criticised for flying visit in which he failed to meet any Iraqi officials
Pompeo met with Iraqi parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi in Baghdad (Reuters)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with senior Iraqi officials, including President Barhem Saleh, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi and parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, during an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Wednesday.

Pompeo's visit to Baghdad, on the second leg of an eight-day Middle East tour, comes less than two weeks after US President Donald Trump drew criticism for failing to meet a single Iraqi official during a brief Christmas visit to US troops based in the country.

The top US diplomat's tour also comes amid confusion over US policy in Syria, from where Trump last month announced that all US troops would be withdrawn, and with Pompeo vowing to confront what he called Iran's "destabilising activities" in the region.

On arriving in Jordan on Tuesday, Pompeo said that the US was still committed to defeating the Islamic State group, but said: "Our tactics have changed, not the mission!"

Following his stopovers in Amman and Baghdad, Pompeo is also due to visit Cairo, Manama, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Muscat and Kuwait City on his longest trip since taking office last year.

Trump's visit to Iraq last month prompted criticism, particularly from pro-Iran groups within the country's parliament, after a planned meeting with Mahdi was cancelled and replaced with a phone call.

Trump had also used the trip to defend his announced withdrawal of US troops, in which he had said that IS had been defeated despite an ongoing campaign against the militants by US-backed fighters in eastern Syria, and said that the US would no longer act as a global "policeman".

Since then, Trump appears to have rowed back, vowing the withdrawal would be done in a "prudent" way, and members of his administration have gone further, saying that the timeline of the pullout remains dependent on events on the ground.

Iraq declared victory over IS in December 2017 but the militants retain a network of sleeper cells in major cities and continue to conduct hit-and-run attacks from mountain or desert hideouts.

Pressure on Iraq

Pompeo's meeting with Halbousi, the Iraqi parliamentary speaker, comes after Middle East Eye reported on Tuesday on how he had been pressured by Saudi Arabia and other US regional allies as part of a wider plan to counter Turkey's regional influence that also involved moves to rehabilitate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

According to Gulf sources, intelligence officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel agreed measures aimed “to control the Sunni card” in Iraq, by which they meant making efforts to minimise the influence of Turkey on the Alliance of the National Axis, the largest parliamentary bloc of Sunni Iraqi parliamentarians.

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Pressure was subsequently applied on Halbousi on his first official visit to Riyadh on 17 December.

During the visit, Halbousi met with Thamer al-Sabhan, former Saudi ambassador to Iraq. Al-Sabhan pressured Halbousi to either reduce the influence of Turkey on the Alliance of the National Axis or pull out of it entirely.

Halbousi has previously encouraged Turkish companies to invest more in Iraq and met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in October to discuss resolving Iraq's water crisis.

Iraq rejects US sanctions

The US and its regional allies have also been keen to reduce the influence of Iran on Iraq, but the Baghdad government has been reluctant to comply with US sanctions reimposed on the Islamic Republic in November.

Trade between the two neighbouring countries is thought to amount to around $12bn, while Iran provides around 40 percent of Iraq's electricity needs.

Last week, Iraq's foreign minister said that his country was "not obliged" to abide by the sanctions and would be pursuing options to continue trade.

Pompeo also held talks with Iraqi President Barhem Saleh (Reuters)

"These sanctions, the siege, or what is called the embargo, these are unilateral, not international. We are not obliged [to follow] them," Mohamed Ali al-Hakim told a gathering of journalists.

He said a number of "possibilities" had been suggested that could keep trade routes open with Iran, "including dealing in Iraqi dinars in bilateral trade".

Last month, Iraq's President Barham Salih visited Iran and discussed strengthening economic ties between the two countries with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani.

"The economic exchange between the two countries is $12bn and we can increase this to $20bn,” said Rouhani after the meeting.

On 20 December, the US granted Baghdad a 90-day extension to a waiver on abiding by the sanctions.

Earlier in December, however, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry urged Iraq to sever its energy dependence on Iran and open its energy sector to American companies.