WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – US Vice President Mike Pence landed in Erbil on Saturday, where he met with senior officials of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), including President Nechirvan Barzani, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, and Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani, before visiting with US troops in the Kurdistan Region.
Pence’s trip there followed his unannounced arrival earlier on Saturday at Al-Asad air base in western Iraq. Because of the protracted unrest in Baghdad, Pence was unable to visit the city for security reasons, while Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi was unwilling to travel to Al-Asad to meet Pence, so the two leaders spoke by phone.
The primary purpose of the Vice-President’s visit was to demonstrate that the US was still fully engaged in combatting the so-called Islamic State, even after President Donald Trump’s order last month, withdrawing most US forces from northeast Syria.
“A senior US official said Pence’s visit was meant both to reassure Iraqi Kurds who remain allied with the US in the fight against [the Islamic State], as well as Americans who have long supported the Kurdish cause,” the Associated Press reported.
Indeed, as Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R, Tennessee) affirmed earlier this week, “support for the Kurds is a bipartisan issue.”
This visit marked Pence’s first trip as Vice-President to the Kurdistan Region and Iraq as a whole. In his meeting with the senior Kurdish officials, Pence recalled that he had visited Erbil once before, as a congressman. That trip was in March 2008, when Pence was part of a Congressional fact-finding mission during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In the Trump administration, Pence has assumed a prominent role concerning the fight against the Islamic State, including formulating the US position on protecting religious minorities in northern Iraq. US officials have repeatedly expressed their appreciation of the spirit of tolerance in the Kurdistan Region.
Before his closed-door meeting with the Kurdish leadership began, Pence cited “the enduring bond that exists between the Kurdish people and the people of the United States of America.”
Addressing the KRG president, Pence also affirmed “our enduring commitment to support your leadership here in the Kurdish region of Iraq, and to remain resolved with you in ensuring” that neither the Islamic State nor any other terrorist group, can “gain a foothold in this region again.”
Pence expressed his “gratitude and deepest respect” for the Peshmerga, who have lost their lives fighting the Islamic State, describing their “extraordinary sacrifices” as a victory, not just for the Middle East, but “for the wider world.”
“I look forward to discussing ways that we can strengthen the relationship between the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the United States of America,” he said, indicating one major topic of their meeting.
Speaking to journalists in Erbil afterward, Pence explained that he had spoken with Abdul Mahdi about the unrest in Iraq, and “he assured me they were working to avoid violence” and “the kind of repression” ongoing now in Iran.
“I also encouraged him to listen to those who are protesting and their calls for reform,” Pence continued, adding, “It was something that President Barzani and I also spoke about.”
Pence articulated the support that he had heard from the KRG leadership for Trump’s decision to maintain a US force in Syria “to secure the oil fields,” so “they don’t fall into the hands of ISIS, Iran, or the Syrian regime,” but so “those oil resources are available for the Kurdish people in Syria.”
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany