US military presence rattles Iran-linked militias in Iraq, not others
BAGHDAD - Repercussions from recent visits by US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Iraq are still playing out in the country, especially among Iran-backed militia leaders.
The militia leaders want the Iraqi government to side with Iran in the face of US sanctions against Tehran. They were also rattled by reports that some Iraqi militias had been blacklisted by Washington.
The visits by top US officials and measures by the Trump administration against Iran and its proxies prompted Iraqi militia leaders to reiterate calls for a speedy withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
Qais al-Khazali, leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia and who represents a 15-member bloc in parliament, told the Associated Press he expected a vote calling for the withdrawal of US troops.
“If the United States wants to impose its presence by force and to bypass the Iraqi constitution and parliament, Iraq can treat it the same way and drive it out by force… but the first phase is political,” Khazali said in reference to the parliamentary vote.
Aws al-Khafaji, a militia leader, said in a video that he feared US troops could be welcomed by many Iraqis who are against the Baghdad government.
“I fear that if the Americans come in, the people, who have become desperate, would turn against the state like Saddam,” said Khafaji, referring to the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
“We don’t like the Americans but we were silent when they came for Saddam. We were happy and said: ‘Let them take him.’ We fear this may be repeated. They (Iraqi officials) should be careful.”
Observers said some Iraqi politicians viewed the US presence in Iraq as a counterbalance to Iran’s influence in Iraq.
“Some political parties are supporting the presence of US troops because they are not able to face the Iran-backed politicians in Baghdad,” said Mohammed al-Qaisy, an Iraqi analyst.
Ghaith al-Tamimi, president of the Iraqi Centre for Diversity Management, said he welcomed aid from countries that promised to counter Iran in Iraq.
“The presence of US troops in Iraq is very necessary if the project includes expelling the militias and narrowing Iranian influence,” Tamimi said. “Iraq needs international support for Iraq’s national moderates in order to stop spreading of cancer of Iran’s militias in Iraq.”
Salah Hassan Ibrahim, a journalist in Anbar, said many people in the province predict there will be clashes between Iran-backed militias and US troops. Iraqis there are critical of the militias. “There is support for US troops presence by Sunni tribal powers and citizens,” Ibrahim said.
Sheikh Muzahim al-Hewitt, spokesman of the Arab tribes in Nineveh province, said he welcomed the presence of US troops in Sunni areas as a deterrent to “the crimes of militias and agendas supported by Iran.”
“We reject naming US troops as occupation forces. They are [liberation forces] and we, as Arab tribes, informed the American side of our full support to them,” Hewitt said.
Eid Ammash, a member of the Anbar provincial council, said the presence of a US base in the province is for logistical reasons to fight the Islamic State (ISIS).
“Those who are in Ain al-Asad Airbase are there at the invitation of Iraq to train Iraqi forces to fight ISIS,” Ammash said. “They are trainers, consultants and military experts for logistic support for the US-led-coalition against ISIS.”
Ammash said the presence of the base and the troops was decided by the central government in Baghdad, not by officials in Anbar.
Legal expert Tariq Harb said the presence of US troops in Iraq was covered by a “US-Iraq strategic framework agreement” and parliamentarians who collected signatures asking for the withdrawal of US troops have not formally tabled a motion in the legislature. “It is still just talk, no motion, no proposal, nothing,” Harb said.
Iran has been proactive in trying to counter US sanctions, sending top officials to Baghdad rather than rely on proxies.
The recent 4-day visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Iraq was meant to make sure that US sanctions against Tehran would not affect trade ties between Iran and Iraq, Qaisy said.