US Vice President Mike Pence (L) meets Iraqi Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani in Arbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, on November 23, 2019 during a visit to Iraq that avoided talks with Baghdad government officials for security reasons
Baghdad (AFP) - US Vice President Mike Pence met Iraqi Kurdish leaders during a surprise visit to Iraq Saturday but avoided travelling to Baghdad for security reasons, as deadly anti-government protests have highlighted Washington's diminished influence.
In his first visit as vice president, Pence visited American troops at Ain al-Asad base in western Iraq's Anbar province and also travelled to Arbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, for talks with officials there.
But Pence "couldn't go to Baghdad for security reasons", a US official accompanying him on the trip told reporters.
The trip came after weeks of anti-government rallies across Baghdad and the south.
Iraqi officials told AFP that Pence spoke to Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi by telephone.
"There won't be a meeting as they had a phone call. The prime minister isn't going to Anbar" to meet Pence, one source said.
President Barham Saleh's office told AFP it had not been aware Pence was coming to Iraq and had no meeting planned. The US embassy said it had no details to share.
The US official said Pence "encouraged the Iraqi government to disassociate itself with Iran", which holds tremendous sway in Baghdad but which Iraqi protesters accuse of overreach.
From Ain Al-Asad, Pence travelled to the capital of the Kurdish region Arbil to meet its President Nechirvan Barzani and prime minister Masrour Barzani.
He later tweeted that the visit to President Barzani was "on behalf" of Trump, and another US official said it was meant to "affirm our gratitude and resolve to continue to stand with our Kurdish allies".
Syrian Kurds had felt betrayed last month after the United States, allies in the fight against the Islamic State group, announced a troop pullout that paved the way for a Turkish offensive against them.
Pence tweeted images of himself and his wife speaking to US forces and carrying a roast turkey, traditionally served during the American Thanksgiving holiday celebrated next week.
"Happy Thanksgiving from Iraq. @SecondLady and I are so honoured to be with our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines here in Iraq!" he tweeted.
- Two protesters killed -
The visit echoed President Donald Trump's own surprise trip to Ain al-Asad a year ago, where he briefly met troops just after Christmas but controversially did not see officials in Baghdad.
Trump's visit was veiled in such secrecy that there was speculation most Iraqi authorities had not been told he was coming.
Pence's trip came as the death toll from weeks of anti-government rallies across Iraq's capital and the south rose even further.
Two protesters were killed and dozens were wounded in clashes with security forces Saturday on the Al-Ahrar bridge in Baghdad, a medical source said.
Demonstrators have massed on three main bridges leading from their protest camp in Tahrir (Liberation) Square to the western bank of the river Tigris, where government offices and foreign embassies are based.
Around 350 people have been killed and 15,000 wounded since protests erupted on October 1 amid outrage over rampant government corruption and lack of jobs.
Protesters are demanding an overhaul of the ruling system in place since the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled then-dictator Saddam Hussein.
The US then dismantled Iraq's security forces and tried to rebuild the country's institutions by working closely with a newfound political class.
But ties are now at their "coldest" since 2003, American and Iraqi officials have told AFP.
Abdel Mahdi, in office for the past year, has yet to visit Washington amid frustrations in the White House that his office was "too close" to Tehran.
Tensions between the US and Iran have spiralled since Washington unilaterally pulled out of the 2015 deal over Tehran's nuclear programme and began imposing a series of crushing sanctions.
Baghdad, which has close ties with both countries, has feared being caught in the middle.
Washington has already slapped sanctions on Iraqi officials, military factions and institutions with ties to blacklisted Iranian organisations.
- 'Not welcome in Iraq' -
In July, the US singled out the leaders of two paramilitary groups in Iraq that Pence accused of being tied to Iran.
Rayan al-Kildani and Waad Qado -- the former a Christian and the latter a member of the Shabak minority -- were both sanctioned over "serious human rights abuse" by them or their organisations.
Kildani reacted to Pence's visit on Saturday, tweeting: "To the American vice president who came to Iraq stealthily... You are not welcome on Iraqi territory."
Kildani and Qado's factions belong to the Hashed al-Shaabi, a powerful Shiite-majority paramilitary network that includes many groups with close ties to Tehran.
Hashed al-Shaabi leaders and Iran have been widely criticised in the recent protests, accused of defending the very government the demonstrators want to bring down.
Many of their offices have been burned in Iraq's restive south, the scene of new protests on Saturday.