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Tuesday April 7th, 2020 4:12AM

On his Mideast trip, Pompeo makes unannounced Iraq stop

By The Associated Press
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BAGHDAD (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Iraq on Wednesday in an unannounced stop on his Mideast tour meant to promote the White House's hard-line position on Iran.

The trip comes amid confusion over conflicting statements by President Donald Trump and senior U.S. officials about a planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria, where Iran is backing President Bashar Assad in that country's lengthy civil war.

Pompeo, addressing reporters, said he told Iraqi officials that "the fight to counter Iran is real and important."

Pompeo and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi discussed efforts to ensure the "lasting defeat throughout the region" of the Islamic State group, said Deputy State Department spokesman Robert Palladino.

Pompeo also promoted the U.S. push to move Iraq toward energy independence, said Palladino. Iraq imports electricity and natural gas from Iran to meet its energy needs.

Iran has cultivated close ties with Iraqi politicians and religious and business leaders since the 2003 U.S. invasion toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein and destabilized the country. Neutralizing those relations will be a difficult — and possibly dangerous — task. Iran has the ear of several powerful Iraqi militias that rival the might of the country's U.S.-funded security forces.

Abdul-Mahdi and Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi, who met with Pompeo separately, both said they told the American diplomat that Iraq values good relations with its neighbors.

In Jordan on Tuesday, Pompeo said the Syria withdrawal would not detract from U.S. efforts to contain Iran's considerable clout in the region. The White House reinstated sanctions against Iran last year for allegedly violating the 2015 nuclear deal championed by former President Barack Obama. International nuclear inspectors had said there was no evidence that Iran was violating the deal.

Pompeo on Wednesday also met with Iraqi President Barham Salih, Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim. He stressed the U.S.'s support for strong, bi-lateral relations based on the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement between the two countries, five years after the U.S. invasion that deposed former dictator Saddam Hussein and plunged Iraq into civil war.

He later traveled to Iraq's autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in the north to meet with officials in Irbil.

Pompeo's visit is the third high-profile visit by an American official to Iraq in the last month. Iraqi politicians were incensed when Trump last month made an unscheduled visit to a U.S. base in western Iraq without also meeting Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, as his predecessors Obama and George W. Bush had done.

Trump said on his Dec. 26 visit that the United States could use its bases in Iraq as a platform for continued operations against the Islamic State group in Syria.

The visit left lawmakers smarting and prompted calls to annul a 2014 agreement that brought U.S. forces back to Iraq. Some 5,200 U.S. troops are now stationed in the country.

Earlier in December, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry urged Iraq to sever its energy dependence on Iran and open its energy sector to American investment. He was in Baghdad with a trade delegation arranged by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Pompeo was expected in Cairo later on Wednesday.

___

Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Cairo contributed to this report.

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