Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Iraq amid tension with Iran

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a sudden, unscheduled trip to Baghdad on Tuesday as U.S. officials warned that Iran was positioning missiles that could be used against American forces in the region.

Pompeo’s surprise visit came on the eve of the first anniversary of President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from a landmark nuclear agreement with Iran. Washington and Tehran have been exchanging increasingly belligerent rhetoric as the day approaches.

The Pentagon has ordered the deployment of an aircraft carrier and Air Force bombers in the Persian Gulf while warning of the threat posed by small Iranian boats suspected of carrying missiles.

Pompeo’s decision to break away from a European trip for the Middle East was cloaked in secrecy for security reasons. He abruptly canceled a visit to Germany, where he was scheduled to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, with the State Department, initially saying only that “pressing issues” had arisen.

After flying out of Baghdad late at night, Pompeo said he had told Iraqi President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi that they are responsible for protecting Americans in their country and briefed them on intelligence suggesting Iran is posing a greater threat.

“We wanted to let them know about the increased threat stream that we had seen and give them a little bit more background on that so they could ensure that they were doing all they could to provide protection for our team,” Pompeo told reporters. “They understood, too, it’s important for their country. We don’t want anyone interfering in their country … and there was complete agreement.”

About 5,000 U.S. troops are based in Iraq, and the United States maintains a large diplomatic presence. Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have both warned that Iran or its proxy militias could be planning an attack on the U.S. forces or U.S. interests, though they have provided few details.

Defense officials said the intelligence that sparked their concern included imagery of containers on the deck of at least one dhow, a sailing vessel, which were believed to contain assembled ballistic missiles from Iran.

Officials were unsure of the intended purpose for the suspected missiles, but they saw it as a worrying departure from Iran’s previous steps to smuggle disassembled missile parts into Yemen. U.S. officials have long accused Iran of delivering disassembled missiles by sea and overland into Yemen, where they have been reassembled for use by Houthi rebels.

While flying to Iraq, Pompeo said his trip was prompted by reports of escalation in Iranian activity. Iraq and Iran are neighbors and maintain cordial relations.

“I wanted to go to Baghdad to speak with the leadership there, to assure them that we stood ready to continue to ensure that Iraq is a sovereign, independent nation,” he said.

Pompeo said he would assure officials in Baghdad that the United States would continue to support Iraqi security forces and urge them to pursue energy deals with Jordan and Egypt to reduce the country’s dependence on the Iranian electrical grid.

The Trump administration is expected to impose more sanctions on Tehran.

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