Washington sees 'significant' threat in Iraq from Iranian proxies

Iraqi PM-designate Kadhimi says only government should have weapons.
Friday 10/04/2020
US Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker (2nd-R) visits a military base in Saudi Arabia. (AFP)
Continued showdown. US Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker (2nd-R) visits a military base in Saudi Arabia. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Iranian-backed militias in Iraq pose a "significant" threat to US forces in the Middle East country, said David Schenker, US assistant secretary of Near Eastern Affairs, while Iraq's prime minister-designate insisted that only the government should wield weapons.

About a week after US President Donald Trump warned of an attack by Iran or its proxies, Schenker told reporters in a teleconference the threat "continues to be significant."

Iran-backed paramilitary groups have regularly been shelling bases in Iraq that host US forces and the area around the US embassy in Baghdad.

Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi said on Thursday that arms should only be in government hands.

The designated PM, who was named by President Barham Salih earlier on Thursday also said in a televised speech the key objectives for his government will be to fight corruption and return displaced people back home.

On Monday, three Katyusha rockets landed near a district in southern Iraq that houses workers for foreign oil companies, including US oil service company Halliburton. No casualties or damage were reported.

Last week, Trump said Iran or its proxies planned a sneak attack on US targets in Iraq and warned they would pay a "very heavy price" but gave no details.

Washington has opposed Tehran's use of proxies in the region to promote an expansionist agenda at the expense of its Arab neighbours.

Iran is seen as lending support to proxy forces in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

Adding to tensions, a January 3 US drone strike in Iraq killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's Quds Force, the regime's foreign intervention arm. It also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who founded Iraq's Shia Kataib Hezbollah militia after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Earlier this week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States proposed a "Strategic Dialogue" with Iraq to be held in June, a bid to restore strained bilateral ties.

Schenker, who in March said Washington was "enormously disappointed" by Iraq's performance in protecting US-led coalition forces, repeated Washington's concerns.

"It is on the Iraqis -- if they value that relationship -- to take certain steps and that includes providing protection to the coalition forces who are in Iraq, if they want those forces to remain," Schenker said.

On Thursday, Iraq's president named intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi as prime minister-designate, the third person tapped to lead Iraq in just 10 weeks as it struggles to replace a government that fell last year after months of deadly protests.

Schenker said of Kadhimi: "If Kadhimi is an Iraqi nationalist, dedicated to pursuing a sovereign Iraq, if he is committed to fighting corruption, this would be great for Iraq, and we think it would be great for our bilateral relationship."

(With Reuters)