Vice President Mike Pence made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Saturday in the highest-level American trip since President Donald Trump ordered a pullback of US forces in Syria two months ago, the AP reports. Flying in a C-17 military cargo jet to preserve the secrecy of the visit, Pence landed in Irbil to meet with Iraqi Kurdistan President Nechirvan Barzani. The visit was meant to reassure US allies in the fight against the Islamic State group after the US pulled troops from northern Syria, leaving the Kurdish allies in neighboring Syria to face a bloody Turkish assault last month following the Trump-ordered withdrawal. Earlier, Pence received a classified briefing at Iraq’s Al-Asad Air Base, from which US forces are believed to have launched the operation that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Pence also spoke by phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. It was Pence’s second trip to the region in five weeks. Trump deployed him on a whirlwind trip to Ankara, Turkey, last month to negotiate a cease-fire after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seized on the US withdrawal to launch an assault on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. Trump's move had sparked some of the most unified criticism of his administration to date, as lawmakers in both parties accused Trump of forsaking longtime Kurdish allies and inviting Russia and Iran to hold even greater sway in the volatile region. Pence said he welcomes "the opportunity ... to reiterate the strong bonds forged in the fires of war between the people of the United States and the Kurdish people across this region."
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