Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson slipped into Iraq Monday night after having spent the morning in Afghanistan, but his welcome in Baghdad was far less effusive as the Trump administration pushes to isolate Iran, an important Iraqi ally.
The diplomatic challenges for the United States in Iraq have become a minefield of competing interests as the Islamic State surrenders the last of its Iraqi territory and a host of squabbling groups fight to fill the vacuum.
After meeting with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq, Mr. Tillerson called for unity in the country, long troubled by sectarian and tribal divisions.
Last week, the Iraqi military seized Kirkuk, wresting the contested city from Kurdish forces, which control much of the northern third of the country. Both sides in the struggle for Kirkuk have been crucial American allies in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.
“We are concerned and have been saddened by the recent differences that have emerged between the Kurdistan regional government and the Iraqi central government,” Mr. Tillerson said in statements made to reporters after he had met with Mr. Abadi.
Asserting that “we have friends” in Baghdad and the Kurdish region’s capital, Erbil, Mr. Tillerson said “we encourage both parties to enter into discussion and dialogue.”
Hours before Mr. Tillerson arrived, Mr. Abadi’s office released a testy statement rejecting Tillerson’s call the previous day for Iranian-backed militias — known as popular mobilization forces or Hashad al-Shaabi — to either disband or leave Iraq.
Although the militias may be armed and trained by Iran, the militia members are Iraqis.
“We wonder about the statements attributed to the American secretary of state about the popular mobilization forces,” the statement from the prime minister’s office said.
The militias were recruited and integrated into the Iraqi military in 2014 after Islamic State militants swept through parts of Iraq and seized nearly a third of the country despite years of effort and billions of dollars spent by the United States to train government forces.
A top Iranian commander, Maj. Gen. Qassam Suleimani, has advised the militias inside Iraq, prompting some Iraqi lawmakers to describe them as an arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The militias maintain individual commands separate from the Iraqi military command and often fly Shiite banners and flags at Iraqi Army checkpoints.
Members of the militias are Iraqi patriots who “have sacrificed greatly to defend their country,” Mr. Abadi’s statement said. “No side has the right to intervene in Iraq’s affairs or decide what Iraqis should do.”
In a news conference on Sunday with Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir of Saudi Arabia, Mr. Tillerson said that “Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home. Any foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control of areas that had been overtaken by ISIS.”
Aides later tried to clarify his remarks as only meaning that Iraq’s military needed a unified chain of command, but the Trump administration’s fiercely anti-Iran rhetoric — President Trump has denounced Iran repeatedly and threatened to renounce the Iran nuclear deal — has discomfited Iraqis.
A spokesman for the popular mobilization forces, Ahmed al-Assadi, told the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad on Monday that he considered Mr. Tillerson’s comments an “unacceptable and false accusation.”
Mr. Assadi, a Shiite member of Parliament, said Mr. Tillerson’s remarks reflected a “lack of experience.”
The Americans have encouraged improvements in Iraq’s relations with Sunni Arab states in hopes of reducing Iran’s influence. Mr. Abadi was in Riyadh on Sunday along with Mr. Tillerson to strengthen ties.
Earlier Monday, Mr. Tillerson made a secret two-hour visit to the main American air base in Afghanistan, arriving in a military transport plane to meet top Afghan officials inside a massive bunker.
His visit to Iraq was similarly unannounced before he landed.
That top American officials must use stealth to enter these countries after more than 15 years of war, thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars spent was testimony to the stubborn problems still confronting the United States in both places.
Mr. Tillerson would not even risk the short trip to Kabul from Bagram Air Base to visit the heavily fortified United States Embassy or Afghan presidential palace, as his predecessors have done. The change reflects the increasingly uncertain security situation in Kabul and the fact that the United States’ presence is now surrounded by vast Taliban-controlled areas.
Mr. Tillerson’s visit was his first to Afghanistan as secretary of state, and like nearly every other top American official to visit over the previous two decades, he said the country’s predicament was not nearly as dire as his own security precautions suggested.
“But I think if you consider the current situation in Afghanistan, and we were talking about this a few minutes ago, and you look a few years in the past to what the circumstances were, Afghanistan has come quite a distance already in terms of creating a much more vibrant population, a much more vibrant government, education system, a larger economy,” he said in a small windowless conference room during a hurried eight-minute news conference. “So there are opportunities to strengthen the foundations of a prosperous Afghanistan society.”
Cloistered in the American military compound, Mr. Tillerson saw none of that hoped-for blooming. Instead, he and his staff exited a huge military transport plane and then piled into a motorcade that drove them the few minutes to the base’s bunkerlike headquarters, passing hangars constructed by Russia, another of the foreign forces to be humbled in Afghanistan. Huge concrete blast walls lined much of the route. Helicopters patrolled the perimeter, and two security blimps equipped with long-range cameras hovered.
After eight months of internal discussions, Mr. Trump in August announced his policy for Afghanistan. Commanders will be allowed to request troops as needed, and the administration emphasized that it would increasingly rely on regional partners like India to improve stability.
Mr. Trump also promised to pressure Pakistan, which United States officials have long accused of playing a double game in Afghanistan — publicly supporting the United States presence while privately protecting the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
The massive air base near Kabul demonstrates why the administration cannot get too tough with Pakistan, since nearly all of the supplies are transported by air or land through Pakistani territory. Soldiers can order supplies and gifts from Amazon, which delivers daily to the base.
Mr. Tillerson will visit Islamabad on Tuesday for his first talks with Pakistani leaders since he delivered a speech last week in which he called for improved ties with India, Pakistan’s rival.
On Monday, Mr. Tillerson said that the United States was increasingly concerned about the stability of Pakistan, which has a large nuclear arsenal.
“Pakistan needs to, I think, take a cleareyed view of the situation that they’re confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organizations that find safe haven inside of Pakistan,” he said.