Pence did not meet in person with either Mahdi or the Iraqi president, both of whom are facing pressure for their heavy-handed response to weeks-long anti-government demonstrations in which more than 320 Iraqis have died.
The Pences, along with the vice president’s chief of staff, Marc Short, and national security adviser, Keith Kellogg, visited a dining facility at the air base. There the vice president and Karen Pence helped serve Thanksgiving meals to about 150 U.S. troops, who greeted them with chants of “U.S.A.”
In remarks, Pence thanked the service members for their work, but he also blamed “partisan politics and endless investigations” for a delay in the defense authorization bill that is hung up in Congress. He in turn pledged that “our administration will never stop fighting until we get you, our troops, the resources you need to accomplish your mission and defend this nation, so help me God.”
The vice president did not make any specific comment on the impeachment hearings looming over the Trump administration, or any reference to the complexities facing U.S. policies and soldiers in the Middle East following the U.S. withdrawal of troops from northeastern Syria last month.
Pence did not announce the trip in advance because of security reasons, a common practice for U.S. leaders traveling to areas of active military engagement. U.S. forces are currently stationed in Iraq to assist in combating Islamic State militants. It is also common for troops in combat zones to receive presidential visits during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The vice president previously visited American troops based in Afghanistan in December 2017, while President Trump visited the same base in December 2018.
Iraq also has been in turmoil since October, with anti-government demonstrations across the country, spurred by discontent with the sectarian and corrupt political establishment set up over a decade ago in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion. On Friday four protesters died in clashes with Iraqi security forces.
Pence told the small group of reporters accompanying him on the trip that he and Mahdi had discussed the protests during their phone conversation and that the Iraqi prime minister told him that “they were working to avoid the violence, or the kind of oppression that we see taking place.”
Pence in turn told Mahdi to “listen to those who are protesting in their calls for reforms,” he said.
After visiting with the troops, the vice president flew to Irbil, where he met with Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region.
In Irbil, Pence told Barzani that it was a “great honor” to visit and praised the “enduring bond that exists between the Kurdish people and the people of the United States.”
“I also welcome the opportunity on behalf of President Donald Trump 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,” the vice president said.
U.S. relations with Kurds in the region have been tense since October, when Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria, where they had been helping to keep an uneasy truce among competing groups united in the fight against the Islamic State.
The sudden change in policy was a particular blow to Syria’s Kurds, a U.S. ally and critical force in the battlefield defeat of the Islamic State. Syrian Kurds had relied on U.S. troops to keep back neighboring Turkey from attacking the semiautonomous Kurdish government they had established in Syria.
Turkey soon after did indeed cross the border and attack. After several days of fighting, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo helped to secure a cease-fire between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Washington re-stationed some of the U.S. troops from Syria to Iraq and elsewhere in the region. A small contingent of American service members, however, remain in Syria. The Trump administration said it’s to help secure oil wells, though they’ve released little information on these missions.
In remarks to reporters on the trip Saturday, a senior administration official said that Pence had requested the visit with Barzani in part to reassure Americans that “we’re not anti-Kurd.”
The official, noted that “you can’t lump” all Kurds together, said that the U.S. has a “strong affinity for this group of Kurds” in Iraq because “they protect our troops.”