BAGHDAD -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Iraq on Wednesday in an unannounced stop on his Middle East tour meant to promote the White House's hard-line position on Iran.
The trip comes as confusion arises over conflicting statements by President Donald Trump and senior U.S. officials about a planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria, where Iran is backing President Bashar Assad in that country's lengthy civil war.
Pompeo, addressing reporters, said he told Iraqi officials that "the fight to counter Iran is real and important."
Pompeo and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi discussed efforts to ensure the "lasting defeat throughout the region" of the Islamic State group, said Deputy State Department spokesman Robert Palladino.
Pompeo also promoted the U.S. push to move Iraq toward energy independence, said Palladino. Iraq imports electricity and natural gas from Iran to meet its energy needs.
Iran has cultivated close ties with Iraqi politicians and religious and business leaders since the 2003 U.S. invasion toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein and destabilized the country. Neutralizing those relations will be a difficult -- and possibly dangerous -- task. Iran has the ear of several powerful Iraqi militias that rival the might of the country's U.S.-funded security forces.
Abdul-Mahdi and Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi, who met with Pompeo separately, both said they told the American diplomat that Iraq values good relations with its neighbors.
Also Wednesday, Iran's supreme leader mocked American leaders, calling U.S. officials "first-class idiots."
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments reflect the broader tension between Iran and the United States after Trump withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.
Khamenei, speaking to a group from Iran's religious capital, Qom, made the remark while recounting a story about a U.S. official once predicting he'd celebrate Christmas in Iran.
"Some U.S. officials pretend that they are mad," Khamenei said. "Of course I don't agree with that, but they are first-class idiots."
The supreme leader did not name the official. However, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said at a meeting of the Iranian exile group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq last March that "before 2019, we here ... will celebrate in Iran." Trump's personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has made similar comments before the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq over the years.
Separately, Iran confirmed Wednesday that it is holding U.S. Navy veteran Michael R. White at a prison in the country, making him the first American known to be detained under Trump's administration.
Although the circumstances of White's detention remain unclear, Iran in the past has used its detention of Westerners and dual citizens as leverage in negotiations.
The semiofficial Tasnim news agency, believed to be close to the country's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, reported the confirmation, citing Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi.
"An American citizen was arrested in the city of Mashhad some time ago and his case was conveyed to the U.S administration on the first days" of his incarceration, Ghasemi was quoted as saying.
The New York Times has quoted White's mother saying she learned three weeks ago that her son is alive and being held at an Iranian prison. His arrest was first reported by IranWire, an online news service run by one-time Iran detainee Maziar Bahari, which interviewed a former Iranian prisoner who said he met White at Vakilabad prison in Mashhad in October. Mashhad is about 60 miles east of Tehran, Iran's capital.
Ghasemi also denied any mistreatment of prisoners in Mashhad, as alleged by the former prisoner quoted in the IranWire story. He described the allegations as "psychological warfare."
The Associated Press was unable to reach members of White's family. The State Department said it was aware of reports of an American citizen's arrest, but was otherwise unable to comment.
Information for this article was contributed by Matthew Lee, Nasser Karimi and Jon Gambrell of The Associated Press.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) meets Wednesday in Erbil, Iraq, with Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The two reportedly discussed the security situation in the region.
A Section on 01/10/2019
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