Iraq Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatens US over budget provision
BAGHDAD - An influential Shiite cleric threatened Wednesday to attack US interests in Iraq and abroad over a congressional provision to send arms directly to Sunni and Kurdish fighters.
The proposed measure in the House Republicans' defense authorization bill for next year would distribute a quarter of the $715 million authorized to train and equip the Iraqi army outside the government's control. It's unclear if the provision will survive the months-long legislative process.
"In the event of approving this bill by the US Congress, we will find ourselves obliged to unfreeze the military wing and start targeting the American interests in Iraq — even abroad, which is doable," said the statement on Muqtada al-Sadr's website.
In a rare turn of events, both al-Sadr and President Barack Obama signaled their opposition to the provision by House Republicans. Proposing to give 25 percent of the funds directly to the Kurdish peshmerga and Sunni forces is one of several provisions in the military policy measure that the White House said on Tuesday that the president opposes.
The statement from al-Sadr underscored how closely the Shiite cleric is following the lengthy, often arcane legislative process. The release of the House GOP version of the bill on Monday was just the first step, and it got barely any notice outside of the Pentagon and Congress.
But it clearly registered in Baghdad.
Al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, was one of the most determined opponents of the US military between 2003 and 2011, but it went dormant after the pullout.
The Iraqi government has also rejected the provision.
"Any weapons supplying will be done only through the Iraqi government," it said. "The draft law proposed by the foreign affairs committee in the U.S. Congress is rejected and it will lead to more division in the region and we urge it be stopped."
The United States has already spent billions arming and training the Iraqi military, but it performed poorly last year when Islamic State militants swept across western and northern Iraq, routing four divisions.
Some of the most effective fighters against the Islamic State have been the Kurdish peshmerga, but they say the government has not given them enough arms.
Iraq's Shiite-dominated government has also been reluctant to arm Sunni tribes, which were key to defeating al-Qaida in Iraq several years earlier.
On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee is considering the defense authorization bill, one of the few bipartisan measures in Congress.
While the specific provision might not withstand the debate process, the defense authorization bill has become law for more than half a century.