The State Department on Thursday cast doubt on reports that Iranian military forces have cooperated with Iraq in a brewing fight with a key U.S. partner in the country.
"I'm not aware of any Iranian involvement in that, per se," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Thursday.
Iran's influence over the central government in Baghdad has alarmed U.S. lawmakers and foreign policy leaders amid an outbreak of infighting. Iraqi Kurds tried to capitalize on their prominent role in driving the Islamic State from the country by voting to form an independent state. The Trump administration has tried to remain neutral while endorsing a unified Iraq, but Iranian military leaders reportedly helped Baghdad take control of a critical city in the region.
"Iran is always a huge concern of ours, not just in Iraq but throughout the region," Nauert said. "When the Iranian regime shows up, bad things tend to happen."
Nauert's hesitance to say that the Iranian regime had arrived in the city of Kirkuk was undercut by CIA Director Mike Pompeo's remarks when asked about the issue. "I'm aware of that," Pompeo said when asked about it at a summit hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The Kurdish Regional Government, which is the expression of the Iraqi Kurds semi-autonomous status in the country, highlighted Pompeo's statement and touted American lawmakers who also protested Iran's involvement in the area.
"Should the Government of Iraq continue down this path and effectively act as a puppet of Iran, it would require a reevaluation of U.S. support to the country," Senate Armed Services Committee member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Thursday.
Nauert held out hope that Iran's influence can be mitigated through foreign aid provided by the United States and other Iranian rivals in the region. "We have seen various governments in the region talk about wanting to participate in reconstruction if some of these countries — Iraq and Syria," she said. "There are other angles that we can certainly be apart of working when it comes to trying to balance out Iran."