(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told an Iraq reconstruction conference Tuesday that the U.S. will remain the country’s “strong partner,” but the head of an Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia with American blood on its hands warned it will target U.S. forces if they remain in the country.
“Iraq is at an important juncture in its history,” Tillerson told the conference in Kuwait. As the country rebuilds after liberating territory from ISIS, he said, “be assured that the United States will remain Iraq’s strong partner in this endeavor.”
There are an estimated 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq, helping to train national forces. The U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition announced last week that its focus in Iraq will move from enabling combat operations to sustaining military gains against the jihadist group.
“Our enduring presence as invited guests in Iraq will shift to focus more on policing, border control and military capacity building,” said the coalition’s director of operations, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga.
The Pentagon’s just-released FY 2019 budget request includes $850 million to “train and equip” the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga (along with $300 million for equivalent activities in Syria.)
“The training, equipment, and operational support in this request will consolidate the gains achieved against ISIS and prevent its reemergence,” the budget overview stated.
Early this week Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the pro-Iranian militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), charged in a series of tweets that the U.S. presence in Iraq serves Israel’s interests and warned that U.S. troops would face a “dark night” if they remain.
“We believe that America wants to keep its military presence in western Iraq in order to find safe havens for armed groups in the future, in order to complete what it has failed to achieve in dividing Iraq through ISIS,” he tweeted.
To safeguard Iraq against projects aimed at dividing the country in the interests of Israel, Khazali said, “we categorically reject the continuation of the U.S. military presence” after the fight against ISIS.
“O America take it as a warning or consider it a threat,” he said. “We are people who do not accept the presence of your troops on their land and you are delusional if you imagine that you can stay against the will of the Iraqi people. We will turn it into a dark night …”
In an interview late Tuesday with the U.S.-funded Alhurra TV network, Tillerson was asked about the ongoing U.S. presence in Iraq, and replied that ISIS elements still pose a threat to Iraq, “and we’re going to stay for as long as we’re certain we have dealt with those threats as well.”
On Iran’s involvement in the broader region, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, Tillerson said the Iranian presence does not bring stability or security to those countries’ citizens.
“We ask Iran to withdraw and send their forces home, and that’s what we believe is the right pathway for the future.”
AAH (“League of the Righteous”), is one of the most prominent elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group formed three years ago to help Iraq’s Shi’a-led government fight the Sunni jihadists of ISIS.
The U.S. accuses AAH, which has close ties to Iran’s Qods Force – the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) division responsible for operations abroad – of responsibility for deadly attacks on its forces during the Iraq war, as well as sectarian kidnappings and killings.
Military commanders blamed the Qods Force and affiliated Shi’ite militias including AAH for the deaths of some 500 U.S. military personnel from 2005 onwards.
Many of those were killed by Iranian-made “explosively formed penetrators,” a particularly deadly form of roadside bomb that first appeared in Iraq in 2005, and were reported to be similar to weapons used by Iran Lebanese terrorist proxy, Hezbollah.
British forces captured Khazali in Basra in 2007, along with a senior Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist, Ali Musa Daqduq.
Their capture was a coup, helping to expose the extent of Iranian covert operations in Iraq, including its funding and training of Shi’ite militias responsible for killing coalition and Iraqi forces and Iraqi civilians.
The U.S. military in particular held Daqduq and AAH responsible for a Qods Force-supported Jan. 2007 attack on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala in which assailants killed an American soldier, then abducted and murdered four more.
Neither Khazali nor Daqduq saw justice, however.
Khazali was freed in January 2010, in exchange for the release of a British IT specialist, Peter Moore, who had been kidnapped by AAH at the Iraqi finance ministry two months after the Basra arrests.
The Obama administration controversially handed Daqduq over to Iraqi custody on the eve of the U.S. troop withdrawal in December 2011.
GOP lawmakers who had earlier pressed earlier for Daqduq to be tried before a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, expressed concern he would never be held to account for his actions. Those fears were realized when, despite U.S. appeals, the Iraqis released Daqduq the following November, saying there was insufficient evidence to hold him.
In a sign that Iran’s emboldened Shi’ite proxies like AAH are flexing their muscles, last December a video emerged showing Khazali, accompanied by Hezbollah terrorists, standing near Lebanon’s border with Israel, and threatening to support Hezbollah in attacks against Israel.
A bill introduced by Reps. Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) late last year calls for the U.S. government to impose terrorism-related sanctions on AAH and another Iraqi militia, Harakat Hizballah Al-Nujaba.
The text says both are trained and funded by Iran’s Qods Force and mentored by Lebanese Hezbollah. It also cites AAH’s 2007 Karbala attack and the murder of the American personnel, and notes that Khazali has pledged allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.