Iran’s allies in Iraq dial up calls for US withdrawal as parliamentary elections near

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Feb 21, 2018
Iran’s allies in Iraq dial up calls for US withdrawal as parliamentary elections near

Several Iranian-supported Iraqi militia commanders and politicians this week called for the withdrawal of American troops from the country, argying that they are no longer needed as ISIS is now militarily defeated, Iranian and Iraqi media reported. A senior official of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), a unit within the Popular Mobilization Force with close ties with Iran's elite Quds Force and the Lebanese Hezbollah, said today that the paramilitary forces and Iraqi parliament will not allow Washington to keep its troops in Iraq. He alleged that the United States aims to establish a permanent military base in Iraq under the guise of NATO. “No particular decision can be made about the presence of foreign forces in our country without the approval of the Iraqi parliament, which opposes the Americans’ presence,” Mahmoud al-Rabiyee, an official of AAH, said. He added that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is running for another term in the upcoming elections, will not be able to allow American troops to stay in Iraq without a parliamentary approval. According to AAH official, Turkey will also not permit the US and NATO to maintain a permanent military base in Iraq because of the escalating tension between Ankara and its NATO allies.

Separately, Hadi al-Ameri, the secretary-general of the powerful Badr Organization, which controls Iraq's Interior Ministry and also has close links with Tehran, echoed a similar view and called on the Abadi government to declare the exact number of US troops stationed in Iraq. "We are told that the presence of US forces in Iraq is on the request of the government in Baghdad. We are yet to get a clear statement from the government regarding the number of US troops which is said to be a large number," Ameri, who is heading a coalition of Iran-allied PMF groups for the May 12 elections, stressed.

Al-Kawthar TV, an Iranian state-run Arabic channel based in Tehran broadcasting religious programs to the Middle East and North Africa, also published an interview about the US military presence in Iraq with Ammar al-Hakim, a prominent Iraqi politician and cleric who recently founded the Wisdom Party to contest the upcoming elections. Hakim did not specifically address the US presence in Iraq, but emphasized that his movement opposes any foreign military presence in Iraq. “This is our red line,” he emphasized, adding that the next Iraqi parliament will take a decision on the status of foreign troops in the country. 

Comment: With ISIS militarily defeated, Tehran and its allies in Iraq have launched a diplomatic offensive to pressure the Baghdad government to set a timetable for the exit of American troops that are still advising and assisting the Iraqi security forces. Last year, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei twice told visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi not to allow American forces to remain in Iraq after ISIS.

Moreover, Iran’s militia allies in Iraq are increasingly threatening violence against American troops. On February 7, Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported PMF group, warned that its fighters will begin to militarily confront American troops “at any moment” if Washington decides to keep a long-term military footprint in Iraq. Several other Iranian-backed PMF groups have made similar threats against US troops.

In an interview with the Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV earlier this month, Jafar al-Hussaini, the spokesman for Kata’ib Hezbollah, described the American military in Iraq as an “occupation force” and called for their immediate exit. “Iraq will not see stability with America’s presence. The Americans have not entered Iraq based on the Iraqi government’s consent. Our combatants have limited weapons but a confrontation with the American forces may begin at any moment. Unlike in the past, the Americans this time will not benefit from any mediation.”

Several other Iranian-linked Iraqi groups have recently echoed similar threats against the American forces in Iraq. "The two governments should co-ordinate to ensure a full withdrawal. US presence will be cause for internal polarisation and a magnet for terrorists," said Kareem Nuri, the spokesman for the powerful Badr Organization, which has close ties with Iran’s Quds Force and controls Iraq’s Interior Ministry.

The recent escalation in anti-American statements by the IRGC and its proxies suggest that the Iranian-backed militia forces in Iraq are now focusing on undermining US interests in Iraq and are trying to speed up the US withdrawal from the country now that the Islamic State – the common enemy of Tehran and Washington at present – is defeated. Second, the IRGC may also be trying to send a message to the Trump administration that it will retaliate through its regional proxies if Washington pursues a more aggressive policy vis-à-vis Tehran.

Recently, Tehran and its allies in Iraq have also set their sight on the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections slated for May 12. Several prominent Iranian-backed Shiite PMF groups have formed the Fatah Alliance to compete in the elections. Hadi al-Amiri is head of the new coalition which also includes other Iranian-supported groups such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Iraqi Hezbollah. Iraqi politicians close to Tehran have also dialed up anti-American remarks.

If Iran’s allies manage to secure a dominant position in the next Iraqi parliament, they will, as in 2011, increase pressure on the American forces to leave the country.