(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Antony Blinken made unannounced stops in the West Bank and Iraq in a fresh shuttle diplomacy bid through the Middle East meant to increase the flow of aid to the Gaza Strip and keep the Israel-Hamas conflict from igniting a wider war.
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Blinken’s talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and a visit with Iraq’s prime minister in Baghdad — kept secret until he was on the way out because of security concerns — were overshadowed by a stepped-up Israeli military campaign in Gaza, attacks that have led Iran-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon to increase rocket attacks of their own.
“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,” Blinken told reporters. “Don’t do it.”
Blinken said he had a productive meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shiaa al-Sudani. and a later statement from his department said the leaders had discussed making sure Gazans have access to food and water. They also reiterated that Palestinians must not be forcibly displaced out of Gaza, even as Israel has pressed for Egypt to move them into tent camps for the rest of the conflict.
Blinken’s visit to the Iraqi capital was also meant to shore up a partnership under which Iraq is hosting about 2,500 US troops. That’s become a source of growing strain against the backdrop of repeated attacks on US military forces in the country and Syria by what US officials have termed Iranian-backed groups.
An Iraqi-based Shiite militia had threatened to escalate attacks if Blinken visited the country.
“I made very clear that the attacks, the threats coming from militia that are aligned with Iran are totally unacceptable and we will take every necessary step to protect our people,” he said.
In Ramallah, Blinken told Abbas the US believes the Palestinian Authority should play a central role in a post-Hamas Gaza, according to a senior State Department official. It’s important that the Palestinian Authority have “a leading role” in such plans, Blinken said in Baghdad.
Abbas said he “stressed that the Gaza Strip is an integral part of the state of Palestine” and urged a comprehensive solution for the West Bank and Gaza.
Read more: Egypt Is Courted on All Sides as Pivotal to Gaza Refugees’ Fate
As Blinken spoke in Iraq, Israel said its troops had entirely encircled Gaza City, effectively cutting off the northern part of the strip from the south with internet and other communications blocked. Targets both above and below the ground were under attack, Israeli army spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said.
Blinken and Abbas previously met twice since the war erupted on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants attacked Israeli communities, killed 1,400 people and kidnapped hundreds.
Israeli troops have pushed deep into Gaza and engaged in fierce battles with fighters from Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organization by the US and Europe.
Blinken updated Abbas on his conversations with the Israeli government and emphasized the US push to avoid civilian harm, the US official said.
He also restated the US’s commitment to getting humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza and its opposition to any forced displacement of Palestinians, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.
Israel’s attacks have killed more than 9,000 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. The besieged territory has received a trickle of aid in the past two weeks over the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
On Saturday, Blinken and his Egyptian and Jordanian counterparts publicly disagreed over the need for a cease-fire, with the Arab foreign ministers saying the humanitarian situation in Gaza necessitates an immediate halt to the war.
Blinken called for limited “humanitarian pauses” to allow for safe delivery of aid and protection of civilians, but warned a cease-fire would only enable Hamas to renew its attacks on Israel. The Biden administration has repeatedly emphasized Israel’s right to self-defense.
Blinken also stopped over the weekend in Tel Aviv and Amman, Jordan, to discuss the humanitarian situation in Gaza and what comes next in the conflict. His visit to Iraq, conducted under heavy security and unannounced until minutes before his departure, followed a similarly closely-guarded visit to Ramallah.
Blinken next heads to Ankara. From there, he’ll travel to Tokyo for a gathering of the Group of Seven foreign ministers and talks with Japanese officials.
--With assistance from Fadwa Hodali and Ian Fisher.
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