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Vice President Pence Visits Iraq As Protests Continue Throughout The Country


When Vice President Mike Pence flew into Iraq this weekend, he was visiting a country in turmoil. And his trip might have stirred up a little more. Anti-government protests have wracked Iraq for weeks, and the U.S. has expressed concern over the number of protesters who've been killed; more than 330, many by security forces. The vice president steered clear of Baghdad, which may have caused some hard feelings. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us now from the Kurdish city of Erbil.

Hey, Jane.


KELLY: Hi. So before we get to the vice president's visit, just set the stage. These protests were ongoing all weekend. Is that right?

ARRAF: Yeah. In fact, they've been going on since October, which is kind of remarkable. And they've kind of veered off into two very different kinds of protests. Let's listen to a bit of the sound from Baghdad.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing in foreign language).

ARRAF: So those are thousands and thousands of high school and university students streaming into central Tahrir Square in Baghdad, waving Iraqi flags and singing the national anthem.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing in foreign language).

ARRAF: And you hear that anthem everywhere the protests are held. It's called "My Homeland," and it's what all the protesters say they want, even more than jobs, even more than an end to government corruption, even more than the fall of these politicians they hate. They want to take back their country. But then you've got what's going on in the south of Iraq, and that's much more grim.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting in foreign language).


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Shouting in foreign language).


ARRAF: So that's from near the port of Umm Qasr, which is Iraq's main cargo port. That was live bullets being fired. And they are being fired at almost every protest, along with tear gas canisters, fired directly into crowds of protesters. And one of them falls, and there's someone shouting, there's a guy dead. In Nasiriyah, another city in the south, over the weekend, they actually burned down the government building, the new government building of the provincial governor, as well as the home of a member of parliament. That's how much hatred there is. Security forces, though, in Baghdad and in the south have responded to even peaceful, nondestructive protests with live bullets. And things are just getting more and more bitter.

KELLY: So you're describing live bullets. You're describing tear gas canisters. Can you describe what the Iraqi government's strategy is to contain this? Do they have a strategy?

ARRAF: They do not appear to have an overriding strategy. Parliament is meeting to discuss an election law because one of the solutions would be early elections. The prime minister said he would step down, but now he isn't stepping down. The defense minister has actually been saying, it's fake news that all these people died. Those numbers aren't like that at all, even though the numbers come from interior ministry and hospital officials. The government has been shutting down TV channels. One thing the government doesn't seem to realize is people won't be content with half measures. They want dramatic change.

KELLY: So into all of this flies Mike Pence over the weekend. Where did he go? What did he do?

ARRAF: Well, it's where he didn't go that's the problem. He did not go to Baghdad. He flew into a base where there are U.S. forces in western Anbar Province. He talked to the prime minister for 25 minutes on the phone. U.S. officials said it was too dangerous for him to go to Baghdad, even though it's his first visit as vice president here. So there was quite a lot of hard feelings about that. It was seen as a breach of sovereignty by some politicians that he did not go to Baghdad. He did indeed go to the Kurdish capital, Erbil, where he met Kurdish leaders.

KELLY: And what was the announced purpose of this trip?

ARRAF: It was basically to see U.S. troops. So he and Mrs. Pence dished out turkey to the troops. According to U.S. officials, he also had an off-record briefing from U.S. commanders and talked to some of the forces there who, it seems, might have been involved in the raid on ISIS leader al-Baghdadi. But he was indeed in Iraq without actually visiting the capital, and that was the problem.

KELLY: That's NPR's Jane Arraf in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Thank you, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.