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Pompeo Visits Iraqi Leaders In Baghdad

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Baghdad today. He is touring the Middle East to reassure allies amid shifting U.S. declarations of its plans for Syria. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us from Baghdad. Hi there, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note that President Trump, over the holidays, just visited U.S. troops in Iraq. Who did Pompeo see?

ARRAF: So Pompeo saw pretty much everyone because when President Trump came here and he bypassed Baghdad and the Iraqi prime minister, that kind of ruffled feathers because that's not the way it's normally done. So here, he saw the prime minister. He saw the Iraqi president, who has a ceremonial role. He saw the foreign minister. He saw the speaker of parliament. And he also met Kurdish leaders because, of course, Iraqi Kurdistan plays a big role in a lot of issues of U.S. interest here - so pretty much everyone in this short visit.

INSKEEP: And let's just remember; there is a war against ISIS. ISIS was active in both Iraq and Syria, was largely driven out of Iraq, is still present in parts of Syria. And President Trump has been talking about getting U.S. troops out of Syria, although they've recently added some conditions they want to meet first. Do Iraqi officials seem to understand and support the U.S. approach to ISIS?

ARRAF: Well, there's a question. I guess they don't really understand what the U.S. position is completely towards ISIS. Everyone agrees that they want ISIS defeated. But I think officials here have been puzzled by statements that U.S. troops would pull out of Syria. ISIS, of course, is an Iraqi preoccupation. At one point, it held one-third of Iraqi territory. It has, as you mentioned, been pushed out of the cities. But Iraqis with U.S. air support are busy fighting ISIS along the borders as we speak - along that border with Syria that runs for hundreds of miles. So part of what they were talking about today was how they can continue that fight against ISIS, no matter what happens.

INSKEEP: Should we assume that Iran came up?

ARRAF: Yeah. We should assume that Iran came up. Now, Iran, whether you know it's spoken about or not, it's always in the backdrop of everything. Iran is Iraq's ally and Iraq's neighbor. So Iran, of course, is also one of Pompeo's preoccupations, perhaps the preoccupation, countering Iranian influence in the region. But here's the thing. Iranian forces helped push back ISIS four years ago. And Iran has been one of Iraq's biggest trading partners. So one of the things that Pompeo discussed was how to wean Iraq away from Iranian electricity because Iraq has been sending millions of dollars - many millions of dollars - to Iran for that electricity. Pompeo mentioned he was glad that Iraq was finding alternate sources.

INSKEEP: And Iraqis are open to that.

ARRAF: So Iraqis are really divided about Iran, you know? But everybody wants good relations with all their neighbors. That's kind of a given. But at the same time, they also don't want to get drawn into another regional conflict of Iran against other regional allies. So one of the big issues here is whether U.S. forces will stay. And, of course, Iran and Iranian-backed groups would also like to see them leave. But they did emphasize during this visit that there's an appreciation for those troops here.

INSKEEP: Truly awkward. Iran, friend of Iraq, which is a friend of the United States, which is an enemy of Iran. Jane, thanks so much, really appreciate it.

ARRAF: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jane Arraf in Baghdad, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.