A Kurdish Thanksgiving: Mike Pence’s Surprise Visit to Iraq

The past few weeks in Iraq have been marked by great uncertainty due to massive protests against the current political climate that has become a pawn of foreign interference. It started off as agitations against Tehran’s extraordinary influence over the Iraqi government, and soon turned violent which led to many being killed. 

In such a backdrop, it was particularly ironic when leader of another foreign power touched upon the country. On Nov 23, US Vice President Mike Pence paid a surprise visit to Iraq and met his troops at the Al Asad Air Base, where he shared a Thanksgiving meal with them. Much of his remarks to the forces were expressing gratitude while assuring that the Trump administration will ensure defence needs are met. In addition to this, he had a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil-Abdul Mahdi. 

“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.”

Reuters further quoted him as saying: “He pledged to me that they would work to protect and respect peaceful protesters as … part of the democratic process here in Iraq.”

But beyond this uncharacteristic affair, a more significant development took place later in the day when the US vice president went to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan region. There he held a meeting with Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani to reiterate American support for the community. 

What could prompt Pence to ignore the country’s capital for an autonomous region? The reason Pence gave was that Baghdad was mired in a loop of violent protests, but the motive is obviously much more meaningful than that. During his telephonic conversation, the vice president had reportedly asked the Iraqi prime minister to disassociate from Iran and perhaps wanted to send a very clear message that Washington will not rewarding pro-Tehran sentiments.    

There is another layer to it as the meeting with Barzani comes around a month after President Trump had unexpectedly withdrawn US troops from Syria border, giving Turkey a green signal to conduct limited military operations in the Rojava region, ending the rule of Syrian Kurds there. 

Among the Kurds, Trump’s pullout was largely seen as an act of betrayal given the community was instrumental in defeating Daesh and were closely supported by the US. To calm down the matter, Pence later on brokered a brief pause with Ankara to let Kurdish fighters withdraw. 

While it did some damage control, the dents were already made as proved by the statement of Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces chief, Mazloum Abdi, that their trust in the US is at the “lowest”. 

Post-Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan is now the only self-governed Kurdish region in the Middle East, which makes Barzani the key representative for the community and one of the most important partners for US, if not the biggest. He had earlier called Trump’s withdrawal “undesirable”, while appreciating America’s historical role in the region – a rather contained reaction. 

His calm and conciliatory tone towards the US, despite such a setback to the American-Kurdish relationship, makes Barzani a crucial partner, which helps explain Pence’s latest bilateral meeting with him.