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Pence declares ‘ISIS is defeated’ hours after attack kills US troops

Vice President Mike Pence, seen in October 2018, will meet Wednesday with the wife of Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan leader whom the White House has embraced as the interim president.

ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG

By CAROL MORELLO | The Washington Post | Published: January 16, 2019

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence told U.S. diplomats Wednesday that the Islamic State caliphate has collapsed in Syria, but made no mention of the U.S. military personnel confirmed killed in the country shortly before he spoke.

In remarks filled with praise for the leadership of President Donald Trump, Pence told the Global Chiefs of Mission conference at the State Department that some of the most heinous enemies of the U.S. are in retreat.

“Thanks to the leadership of this commander in chief and the courage and sacrifice of our armed forces, we are now actually able to begin to hand off the fight against ISIS in Syria to our coalition partners,” he said, prompting applause from the 184 diplomats in the audience. “And we are bringing our troops home. The caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated.”

Last month, Trump also claimed the militant group has been defeated, leading him to announce the withdrawal of about 2,000 U.S. troops there, though the timeline has wavered. Other administration officials have acknowledged ISIS militants remain active in a small area of the country.

About the same time as Pence arrived on the stage in an auditorium at the State Department to military marching music, his press secretary tweeted that Pence had been notified of the troops’ deaths earlier Wednesday. ISIS claimed credit for the suicide bombing that took their lives.

“@VP has been briefed on the situation in Syria. He and @POTUS are monitoring the situation. Our hearts go out to the loved ones of the fallen,” tweeted Alyssa Farah.

Pence has a son, Michael, who is an officer in the Marine Corps.

News of the combat deaths prompted a far different response from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday that the troop withdrawal announced by Trump has emboldened the militant group.

“My concern by the statements made by President Trump is that you have set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we’re fighting,” Graham said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “So I would hope the president would look long and hard of where he’s headed in Syria.”

Graham compared Syria to Iraq, and said the U.S. needs to maintain its commitment to forces fighting ISIS and the ideology that cannot be as easily wiped out.

“Every American wants our troops to come home, but I now think all of us want to make sure that when they do come home, we’re safe,” he said. “I know people are frustrated. But we’re never going to be safe here unless we’re willing to help people over there who will stand against this radical ideology.”

In the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, urged Trump to reverse the decision to pull troops from Syria.

“Today’s deadly bombing targeting our troops in Syria is a reminder that ISIS still has the capacity to carry out attacks,” he said.

Pence, following several rounds of applause, said the fight against militants in Syria remains a priority for the administration.

“We will stay in the region, and we’ll stay in the fight, to be sure that ISIS does not rear its ugly head,” he said. “We will protect the gains that our soldiers and our coalition partners have secured. This president has often spoken about his desire to bring an end to endless wars. And the ability to bring our troops home. And bring them home in an orderly and effective way.”

The annual conference brought together 184 ambassadors and chiefs of mission from embassies and consulates around the world to discuss foreign policy issues the envoys are expected to raise. The travel money was spent before the shutdown began, and it was decided to go ahead with it, said a State Department official, because the meeting is considered “essential to the conduct of foreign affairs essential to national security.

During Pence’s speech, State Department employees who helped organize the conference but are not receiving pay during the almost-four-week-old shutdown stood, lining the steps alongside the wall. Pence did not mention the shutdown, either.

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