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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 leaders, for talks with officials there.
But Pence "couldn't go to Baghdad for security reasons", a US official accompanying 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", a key power broker in the country and who Iraqi protesters have accused of meddling and overreach.
Before leaving Iraq, Pence did meet Iraqi Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani and his prime minister Masrour Barzani in Arbil, the Kurdish presidency said.
Another US official said the meeting with President Barzani 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.
One protester 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.
One protester was killed and 17 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.