Blinken makes surprise visit to Baghdad amid concerns of wider Middle East conflict

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday made a surprise visit to Baghdad, Iraq, where he met with Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani amid concerns of a wider conflict in the Middle East stemming from Israel’s war with the militant group Hamas.

Blinken’s meeting comes as American forces in Iraq and Syria face a surge in attacks believed to be from Iranian-backed militants. Blinken earlier traveled to Jordan and the West Bank to meet with officials there.

Blinken told reporters in Baghdad that he and al-Sudani had a “good, productive, candid meeting,” where the two leaders discussed the safety of U.S. personnel in the region, along with a reaffirmation of the U.S.’s commitment to its partnership with Iraq.

“At the same time, it was very important to send a very clear message to anyone who might seek to take advantage of the conflict in Gaza to threaten our personnel here or anywhere else in the region: ‘Don’t do it,'” Blinken said. “I made very clear that the attacks, the threats coming from the militia that are aligned with Iran are totally unacceptable and we will take every necessary step to protect our people.”

Maintaining the U.S. is “not looking for conflict with Iran,” Blinken said the U.S. will “do what’s necessary to protect our personnel,” whether they be military or civilian.

Al-Sudani made clear his condemnation of attacks against Americans and his “determination” to ensure such attacks do not continue, Blinken said.

Attacks on American forces have increased in the month since the militant group Hamas carried out a bloody incursion into Israel, gunning down hundreds of civilians and soldiers across multiple Israeli towns. Hamas’s attacks have left more than 1,400 Israelis dead — including hundreds of civilians at their homes, at a bus stop and at a music festival.

A senior defense official last week said U.S. and coalition forces in the Middle East have come under attack 23 times since mid-October, 14 times in Iraq and nine times in Syria.

While the official said most of the attacks were “unsuccessful,” the uptick has sparked concerns that third parties, such as Iran and its proxies, might use the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which is backed by Iran, to engage in a separate front with Israel and escalate conflict in the region.

Since Hamas’s attacks, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is also backed by Iran, has traded fire with Israel, further fueling escalation concerns.

Blinken said he and al-Sudani are working “very hard” to make sure the conflict in Gaza does not escalate, calling it “very vital and urgent work of American diplomacy.”

Blinken’s surprise visit to Baghdad came after his trip to the West Bank earlier Sunday, where he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abba and “reaffirmed” the U.S.’s “commitment to the delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance and resumption of essential services in Gaza.”

World leaders have expressed concerns over a deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the West Bank in the wake of Israel’s bombardment, which has included airstrikes, several bombings, ground attacks and a siege on basic necessities.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been forced to flee their homes and take refuge in shelters, refugee camps or hospitals, which are reportedly on the verge of collapse as they try to treat the thousands of reported injuries.

In Sunday’s visit to the West Bank, Blinken “made clear that Palestinians must not be forcibly displaced,” while discussing ways to restore calm and stability in the West Bank, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

Miller said these efforts include curbing the “extremist violence against Palestinians and [holding] those accountable responsible.”

Last week, President Biden and White House officials upped support for a humanitarian pause in the Israel-Hamas conflict that would allow aid to get into Gaza and civilians to get out of the enclave amidst intense fighting.

John Kirby, a White House spokesperson for national security issues, said the pause would not mean a break in security aid from the U.S. to Israel, pushing back on the argument such a pause would make Israel vulnerable to another attack.

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