Pompeo makes unscheduled trip to Iraq to press US concerns about Iran

Iraq's President Barham Salih with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Baghdad, Iraq, on May 7, 2019.
Iraq's President Barham Salih with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Baghdad, Iraq, on May 7, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

BAGHDAD (NYTIMES) - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo scrapped a visit to Germany on Tuesday (May 7) to make an unannounced trip to Iraq, pressing Iraqi leaders about what he called the increased dangers to Americans there from Iran's forces and allies.

Pompeo said he also used the four-hour visit to push what he described as Iraq's need to avoid dependence on neighbouring Iran for power supplies including electricity.

The diversion to Iraq by Pompeo, who was in the midst of a four-day European tour, added to what is an escalating US effort to ostracise Iran, which the Trump administration has sought to vilify as the chief destabilising force in the Middle East.

There was no immediate comment from the leaders of Iran, who contend that the United States is the region's core source of turmoil. But the increased tensions between the long-estranged countries has created fears of an armed confrontation.

The Iraq stopover followed new warnings by Pompeo and the White House national security adviser, John Bolton, that Iran and what they called its proxy forces appeared to be preparing for attacks against US troops and other interests in the region.

Pompeo met top Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Alhakim and President Barham Salih.

"First of all, we talked to them about the importance of Iraq ensuring that it's able to adequately protect Americans in their country," Pompeo told reporters travelling with him after they had departed Baghdad. The Iraqis had "provided assurances that they understood that was their responsibility", he said.

 
 

"We don't want anyone interfering in their country, certainly not by attacking another nation inside of Iraq, and there was complete agreement," Pompeo said.

Iraqi officials were far more circumspect in their description of the meetings. "Both sides discussed the bilateral relations and the recent updates in the security of the region and efforts of fighting terrorism," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Pompeo's visit, shrouded in secrecy until after it was over, came on the eve of the one-year anniversary of Trump's repudiation of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and the reimposition of US sanctions, which have been increasingly squeezing Iran's economy. Iran said on Monday it would no longer comply with parts of the agreement, alarming European officials who have hoped to preserve the accord, meant to ensure Iran's peaceful use of nuclear energy.

The choreography of Pompeo's Iraq stopover also appeared designed to send a message to Iran. Before he flew to Baghdad, the State Department said Pompeo, who had been in Finland, had abandoned a scheduled meeting in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany because of unidentified "pressing issues".

The Trump administration has not provided specific details about what it has called the new threat from Iran, which has drawn some scepticism, given the history of faulty intelligence that led to the Iraq War. But officials have told The New York Times that new intelligence has raised concerns about Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its connections to some of Iraq's Shi'ite Arab militias.

Asked by reporters to elaborate, Pompeo said, "I just don't want to go into the details of that anymore". But he also reiterated his contention that the Revolutionary Guards is a terrorist organisation. "This was just calling out the truth," he said.

It was Pompeo who last month placed the Revolutionary Guards on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organisations, against the advice of US intelligence and Pentagon officials, who warned that Iran's clerical government could reciprocate and put US personnel at risk in the Middle East.

Last week, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran declared all US forces in the Middle East terrorists and labelled the US government a state sponsor of terrorism.

To counter what the Trump administration has described as the new threat, the Pentagon has expedited an already-scheduled deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf.

Pompeo said he also raised the issue of Iraq's energy requirements with his Iraqi hosts, who have been upset at US demands it stop relying on imported Iranian power supplies. The Trump administration gave Iran a waiver in March to purchase Iranian electricity without incurring US penalties, but that waiver is set to expire in June.

"We want them to have the opportunity to have multiple sources and a diverse energy base," Pompeo told reporters before his meetings. "We think that's better for an independent, sovereign Iraq."

Pompeo's trip coincided with news that Iraq is close to signing a US$53 billion (S$72.3 billion), 30-year agreement with Exxon Mobil and PetroChina to develop oil fields in southern Iraq.

Such deals, Pompeo said, "are important to Iraq - big energy deals that can disconnect them from Iranian energy".

He was travelling from Finland, where he had attended an annual meeting of diplomats from Arctic nations. A State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, said the "important set of meetings" that had been cancelled in Berlin would be rescheduled.

Pompeo had been set to meet with Merkel and Heiko Maas, Germany's foreign minister, to discuss Ukraine, Russia, China, Syria, the Western Balkans and other issues, according to a schedule released by the State Department last week.

Germany has long considered the United States its most trusted ally, but relations have been badly strained under the administration of Trump, who has publicly chided Merkel and her government over issues including refugees and a planned gas pipeline with Russia. He has threatened to impose tariffs on automobile imports from Germany.

The chancellor's office and Germany's Foreign Ministry declined to comment officially on the decision, but both made clear that the cancellation had come from Pompeo's side.