Blinken visits Iraq in bid to prevent Gaza spillover

U.S. Secretary of State Blinken boards a plane in Tel Aviv

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid an unannounced visit to Iraq on Sunday, as he tours the Middle East attempting to tamp down tensions after war erupted between Israel and Palestinian militants Hamas last month.

After an earlier visit to the occupied West Bank, Blinken landed in Baghdad on Sunday evening for his first visit to the country as the U.S. top diplomat and held talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani.

Washington wants to prevent a wider regional conflict and has stepped up diplomacy with regional countries whose populations have been angered by Israel's assault on Gaza.

Blinken landed at Baghdad’s international airport, donned a ballistic vest and traveled by Black Hawk helicopter to the Green Zone, a remnant of the U.S. occupation of Iraq after its 2003 invasion. At the U.S. ambassador’s residence he was briefed on threats to U.S. facilities, before heading to the prime minister’s office.

He will travel to Turkey later on Sunday, where protests were already underway.

Iran-backed group Kataib Hezbollah issued a warning on Saturday night that the expected Blinken visit would be met with "an unprecedented escalation."

U.S. defense officials say rocket and drone attacks on U.S. and coalition troops have stepped up in Iraq and Syria since Hamas' deadly attacks on Oct. 7 sparked an intensive Israeli military campaign in Gaza.

Iraqi armed groups aligned with Iran have threatened to target U.S. interests with missiles and drones if Washington intervened to support Israel against Hamas in Gaza.

"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 told reporters after meeting al-Sudani.

Al-Sudani has pledged to pursue the perpetrators of rocket attacks on three military bases in Iraq hosting international coalition advisers, including Ain al-Asad in western Iraq, a military base near Baghdad's international airport and Harir in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil.

Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which like Hamas is backed by U.S. adversary Iran, has launched strikes on northern Israel.

Hezbollah's leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah issued a warning on Friday, as Blinken arrived in the region, that preventing a regional conflict depended on stopping the Israeli attack on Gaza, and said there was a possibility of fighting on the Lebanese front turning into a full-fledged war.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Conor Humphries)