BAGHDAD (Dispatches) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with senior Iraqi officials, including President Barhem Saleh, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi and parliamentary speaker Muhammad al-Halbousi, during an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Wednesday.
Pompeo's visit to Baghdad, on the second leg of an eight-day Middle East tour, comes less than two weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump drew criticism for failing to meet a single Iraqi official during a brief Christmas visit to U.S. troops based in the country.
The top U.S. diplomat's tour also comes amid confusion over U.S. policy in Syria, from where Trump last month announced that all U.S. troops would be withdrawn, and with Pompeo vowing to confront Iran.
Following his stopovers in Amman and Baghdad, Pompeo is also due to visit Cairo, Manama, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Muscat and Kuwait City on his longest trip since taking office last year.
Trump's visit to Iraq last month prompted criticism, particularly from Iraqi lawmakers, after a planned meeting with Mahdi was cancelled and replaced with a phone call.
Since then, Trump appears to have rowed back, vowing the withdrawal would be done in a "prudent" way, and members of his administration have gone further, saying that the timeline of the pullout remains dependent on events on the ground.
The U.S. and its regional allies have also been keen to pressure Iran, but the Baghdad government has been reluctant to comply with U.S. sanctions reimposed on the Islamic Republic in November.
Trade between the two neighboring countries is thought to amount to around $12bn, while Iran provides around 40 percent of Iraq's electricity needs.
Last week, Iraq's foreign minister said that his country was "not obliged" to abide by the sanctions and would be pursuing options to continue trade.
"These sanctions, the siege, or what is called the embargo, these are unilateral, not international. We are not obliged to follow them," Muhammad Ali al-Hakim told a gathering of journalists.
He said a number of "possibilities" had been suggested that could keep trade routes open with Iran, "including dealing in Iraqi dinars in bilateral trade".
Last month, President Salih visited Iran and discussed strengthening economic ties between the two countries with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani.
"The economic exchange between the two countries is $12 billion and we can increase this to $20 billion,” said Rouhani after the meeting.
On December 20, the U.S. granted Baghdad a 90-day extension to a waiver on abiding by the sanctions.
Earlier in December, however, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry urged Iraq to sever its energy dependence on Iran and open its energy sector to American companies.
Pompeo’s visit came amid unconfirmed reports that the U.S. planned to set up new military bases in Iraq in order to house troops evacuated from Syria.
On Monday, an Iraqi group of volunteer fighters who crushed foreign-backed takfiri terrorists in the country threatened to attack U.S. forces.
In a statement, a spokesman for Asaib Ahl al-Haq group said it had spotted new U.S. troop deployments in the country, threatening to target the forces if the Iraqi government and parliament failed to act.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq Jawad al-Talebawi said the group is closely monitoring the U.S. military’s "illegitimate" movements and deployments across the country.