Anti-gov’t rallies in Iraqi capital turn bloody after Shia leader al-Sistani urges quick electoral reform to end crisis.
Baghdad, Iraq – United States Vice President Mike Pence has arrived in Iraq on an unannounced visit to US troops at the al-Asad airbase in Anbar province in the western part of the country rocked by weeks of anti-government protests.
Pence, on his first visit to Iraq, on Saturday also spoke on the phone with the embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and met the president of the autonomous Kurdistan region, Nerchirvan Barzani, in Erbil.
According to a source at the premier’s office, the phone call involved a discussion around ways to strengthen bilateral relations between the US and Iraq, and possible solutions to the current crisis in the oil-rich country.
“The phone call addressed the developments in Iraq and the government’s reform efforts in response to the protesters’ demands,” said a statement from the prime minister’s office.
According to the US media reports, Pence also told Abdul Mahdi that he travelled to Iraq to “extend his gratitude to the men and women serving in your country”.
At Erbil, Pence told reporters that the US respected Iraqi sovereignty and that Abdul Mahdi reassured him that Iraqi security forces will not use force against peaceful protesters.
The visit came amid weeks of escalating anti-government protests in Baghdad and across Iraq’s mainly Shia south. Demonstrators who have taken to the streets since early October demand basic services and an end to corruption.
They also demand that the government step down and new elections are held.
Earlier this month, the US joined the United Nations in urging the Iraqi government to hold early elections and “halt the violence against protesters”. The escalating violence has killed at least 325 protesters and injured another 15,000.
On Saturday, one protester was killed and at least 10 others wounded in clashes with Iraqi security forces on al-Ahrar Bridge, according to witnesses. The Iraqi government denied the report.
Pence’s visit is also being seen by the observers as a means to reassure the Kurds in northern Syria. He told reporters that the US government aims to work with the Kurds to stabilise the situation in Syria.
Pence visited Ankara last month, announcing a ceasefire after Turkey agreed to halt a military offensive in northern Syria, which allowed the Kurdish forces to withdraw from the region.
Pence’s visit to Iraq was reminiscent of US President Donald Trump‘s unannounced visit to the US troops at an air force base in Iraq during Christmas last year. Trump, then, did not meet the Iraqi premier.
According to a White House statement at that time, Trump and First Lady Melania travelled to Iraq to thank the US troops for “their service, their success and their sacrifice”.
Iraq’s political leaders had condemned Trump’s surprise visit as a “flagrant violation of diplomatic norms” and a show of his “disdain and hostility in his dealings with Iraqi government”.
Iraqi political analyst Ali Hussein Allawi told Al Jazeera that Pence’s visit may provoke similar reactions from the Iraqi political leaders.
“The visit will not elicit much of a reaction from the Iraqi people because they are currently busy with the protests and calling for an end to corruption,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The message given by this visit is that the US doesn’t want to impose itself or get involved in Iraq’s internal politics.”