(CNSNews.com) – U.S. attempts to contain and counter Iranian influence in Iraq ran into resistance late Monday from Iraq’s prime minister, who informed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Iran-backed Shi’ite militias – which the U.S. wants disbanded – should on the contrary be “encouraged.”
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told Tillerson in Baghdad that the so-called “Popular Mobilization Forces” comprise Iraqis who defended their country and had made sacrifices in the campaign against ISIS.
According to a statement from Abadi’s office, he said the PMF is an official Iraqi state institution, stressed that Iraq’s constitution does not allow the existence of armed groups outside state control, and added that the militias “should be encouraged because they will be the hope of the country and the region.”
A day earlier, Tillerson said during a visit to Saudi Arabia that with the fight against ISIS in Iraq coming to an end, “those militias need to go home.”
“Any foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control,” he added.
Those comments drew a swift retort from Abadi’s media office, which said “no party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters.”
Tillerson’s previously-announced itinerary for his current travel had not included a visit to Baghdad. He was meant to have gone from Qatar to Pakistan, but instead made previously unannounced stops Monday in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan.
Tillerson’s comments in Riyadh also drew criticism from Iran, whose foreign minister Javad Zarif asked mockingly on Twitter “exactly what country” Iraqis who had fought to defend their homes against ISIS terrorists should be expected to return to.
In subsequent comments while on a visit to South Africa, Zarif added that PMF fighters “are already in their homes and have not been waiting, and will not wait, for anybody’s order.”
“If they had waited for orders from Tillerson and [the] U.S. government,” he added, ISIS would today control Baghdad.
If anyone should leave the region and “go home” it is the U.S., Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said in a commentary Tuesday.
“It is the United States which has been destabilizing the Middle East and whose forces need to leave the region – and not Iranian forces which are sacrificing their lives to defeat terrorism and restore peace and stability throughout the region and beyond,” it said.
“Iran has no militias in Iraq or Syria,” the Fars commentary claimed. “It has military advisors supporting the governments there and combating [ISIS] upon official requests from Baghdad and Damascus.”
Despite such assertions, the PMF (Hashd al-Shaabi), an umbrella group of mostly Shi’ite militias which came together in 2015 to help Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government fight the Sunni jihadists of ISIS, is widely known to enjoy the strong backing of Iran.
Constituent militias include Asaib al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, which the U.S. government and military accused of carrying out deadly attacks on American troops, sponsored by Iran, during the Iraq war. The State Department describes them as “anti-U.S. sectarian militias” and warns they could pose a threat to American citizens and Western companies. (Kata’ib Hezbollah is a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.)
Also playing a key role in PMF operations is the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who frequently visits Iraq. Soleimani has been designated by the U.S. Treasury for the past decade for terrorism and supporting the Assad regime.
Tillerson’s criticism of the militias while in Saudi Arabia came after the PMF helped Iraqi military forces retake the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq from Kurdish forces.
The Trump administration, which supports a “unified, democratic Iraq,” opposed a recent Kurdish referendum that saw 92 percent of voters back calls for independence from Iraq.
The State Department expressed understanding of Iraq’s retaking of Kirkuk, saying it had been agreed back in 2014 that once ISIS was expelled from the areas it seized, Iraq would return to “pre-2014 lines.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Thursday the U.S. had been aware of the Iraqi operation in advance and that she was “not aware of any Iranian involvement in that, per se.”