(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a brief unannounced visit to Baghdad Tuesday, as the U.S. military confirmed that assets being sent to the region in a message to Iran include B-52 long-range strategic bombers.
Pompeo said afterwards he had met with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and President Barham Salih to reinforce U.S. friendship and “underline the need for Iraq to protect diplomatic facilities and coalition personnel.”
In order to make the trip, Pompeo abruptly called off a visit to Berlin that had been scheduled between Arctic Council talks in Finland and a stop in Britain for official meetings and a speech.
En route to Baghdad he told reporters traveling with him that he was going because of “information that indicates that Iran is escalating their activity.”
Pompeo declined to go into details about the nature of the threat, but in response to a question suggested that it related to U.S. troops who have been deployed in Iraq to help local forces fight against the ISIS terrorist group.
“It certainly is the case that if American interests in Iraq were threatened it would impact Iraq as well,” Pompeo said. “This would be an effort to take American forces out that continue our campaign against ISIS, something that’s incredibly important to the Iraqi government.”
Reinforcing that impression, Pompeo told reporters flying from Baghdad to London after the talks that he had spoken to the Iraqis “about the importance of Iraq ensuring that it’s able to adequately protect Americans in their country.”
“They both provided assurances that they understood that was their responsibility,” he added.
Pompeo also said that it was the U.S. understanding that the attacks it had learned about had been planned to take place “fairly soon.”
At the Pentagon Tuesday, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan referred to “credible reporting” on Iran, and said the military was getting into “the right posture for that dynamic environment.”
A U.S. Central Command spokesman, U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Urban, said in a statement the command “continues to track a number of credible threat streams emanating from the regime in Iran throughout the CENTCOM area of responsibility.”
On Sunday, National Security Advisor John Bolton first announced that the U.S. was sending an aircraft carrier strike group and bombers to the region to send a message to Iran, “in response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.”
The Pentagon said Tuesday that apart from the USS Abraham Lincoln, its air wing and its strike group vessels – a guided-missile cruiser and four destroyers – the U.S. was also deploying B-52 bombers.
Bolton in his earlier statement did not elaborate on the threat, but warned of a response to any attack by Iranian regular forces, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces, or “by proxy.”
Iranian proxies in the region include Shi’ite militias in Iraq which have issued warnings over the past year and a half about targeting the ongoing U.S. military presence. There are currently some 5,200 U.S. troops in the country.
Pentagon officials hold some of those same militias – and their IRGC Qods Force mentors – responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American personnel during the Iraq war.
The U.S. has long been calling for their dismantling. A year ago, Pompeo in a speech accused Iran of sponsoring “Shia militia groups and terrorists to infiltrate and undermine the Iraqi security forces and jeopardize Iraq’s sovereignty.”
“Iran must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Shia militias,” he said at the time.
As he flew to London from Iraq on Tuesday, Pompeo said he had spoken to both the prime minister and president about the issue again.
“We have urged the Iraqi government, for its own security, to get all of those forces under Iraqi central control. In each of those meetings, those two leaders promised that that was their objective too, they were moving towards that goal, and we talked about how we could assist them with that,” he said.
Reacting to the carrier deployment and Bolton’s comments, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted Tuesday that if the U.S. and its “clients” don’t feel safe in the region, “it’s because they’re despised by the people of the region – blaming Iran won’t reverse that.”
Pompeo en route to Baghdad also indicated he would be speaking to the Iraqis about energy deals that could help it move away from reliance on Iranian energy supplies, alluding to the possible provision of electricity from Egypt and Jordan.
“It’s true there is a great deal of electricity that comes out of Iran into Iraq, and we want them to have opportunity, to have multiple sources, a diverse energy base,” he said. “We think that’s better for an independent and sovereign Iraq.”
The Trump administration has been ratcheting up the pressure on the Iranian regime since withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal one year ago on Wednesday.
Last week it let waivers expire that had enabled Iran’s remaining customers to continue buying crude oil without risking U.S. sanctions.
Iraq gets both electricity and gas from Iran, transactions which at the moment are still covered by a U.S. waiver renewed in March.
As recently as Monday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by phone to Salih, his Iraqi counterpart, and according to Iran’s foreign ministry told him that “we are seriously seeking to develop our friendly relations with Iraq.”
“All regional countries need to understand the current critical conditions and cooperate with each other to stop U.S. bullying aimed at creating instability in the region,” the ministry quoted Rouhani as telling Salih.