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Pompeo takes unannounced trip to Baghdad amid rising tensions with Iran

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking on Arctic policy at the Lappi Areena in Rovaniemi, Finland, Monday, May 6, 2019, made an unscheduled trip to Iraq on Tuesday, May 7, 2019.

MANDEL NGAN/AP

By CAROL MORELLO | The Washington Post | Published: May 7, 2019

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a sudden, unscheduled trip to Baghdad on Tuesday, as an aircraft carrier and Air Force bombers streaming to the Middle East amid warnings Iran was contemplating an attack on U.S. troops in the region.

The surprise visit came after Pompeo abruptly canceled a visit to Germany, where he was scheduled to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. The State Department initially said only that the change was because of "pressing issues" that had arisen.

Adding to the secrecy surrounding the visit, the handful of reporters traveling with Pompeo were not immediately told where they were headed and warned they might not be able to file reports from the mystery location until after departure.

Such stealth is not unprecedented. Similar silence was required of reporters who accompanied Pompeo on his first visit as secretary of state to Pyongyang, North Korea, and on a visit his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, made to Afghanistan.

But Pompeo's visit to Baghdad, which followed an Arctic Council meeting in Finland, took on an air of urgency as regional tensions are rising on the eve of the first anniversary of President Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement.

The rhetoric between Tehran and Washington has become increasingly belligerent in recent weeks, with the administration hinting that more sanctions are imminent and Iran vowing to protect itself from "economic terrorism."

Since November, the administration has imposed an unrelenting series of new sanctions that have strained Iran's economy. U.S. officials say their strategy is designed to get the Islamic Republic to end its support for militant groups in the region and to cease testing missiles.

Pompeo has stopped short of calling for regime change. But his maximalist list of 12 demands aiming to get Iran acting like a "normal nation" is so uncompromising that experts say there is little chance of Iran relenting.

Iranian officials have said they are reconsidering full cooperation with the landmark nuclear agreement in response to the Trump administration's pressure campaign, though it would be short of a complete withdrawal. President Hassan Rouhani is expected to announce a decision Wednesday, exactly one year since Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated with five other world powers.

Intelligence in recent days has suggested the threats are coming from Iran's military and its proxies. U.S. officials have refused to say publicly what they are, but one official said they involve potential actions against U.S. troops and nonmilitary interests on land and at sea.

When reporters traveling with Pompeo asked him about the threats, he mentioned Iraq.

"As Secretary of State, I have a responsibility to keep the officers that work for me safe each and every day all around the world. That includes in Irbil and Baghdad, in our facilities in Amman, all around the Middle East. And so any time we receive threat reporting, things that raise concerns, we do everything we can, both to do all that we can to make sure that those planned or contemplated attacks don't take place, and to make sure that we've got the right security posture."

The U.S. has more than 5,000 troops stationed in Iraq, which has a State Department waiver from sanctions allowing it to keep purchasing electricity from Iran. U.S. forces are also based in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Iraq has a number of Shiite militia groups, backed and trained by Iran, that have criticized the U.S. designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite branch of Iran's military, as a terrorist organization.

The Persian Gulf includes critical sea lanes for oil shipments, particularly at the Strait of Hormuz. As U.S. sanctions have dried up many markets for Iran's oil, Tehran has threatened to close the strait. When Bahrain objected, an Iranian official responded, "Mind your small size and do not threaten someone bigger than yourself."

The White House announced Sunday that the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its escort ships are in the Mediterranean and have been en route to the Persian Gulf region since early April.

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