Iranian-supported militia leader calls for US exit from Iraq

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Jan 31, 2018
Iranian-supported militia leader calls for US exit from Iraq

The leader of a prominent Iraqi militia group has called on the American troops in Iraq to leave the country. “As Iraq is witnessing national unity, US forces are not allowed to stay,” Qais al-Khazali, the head of Iranian-backed Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, said in an interview with Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen news outlet. “The United States will present excuses and arguments to remain in Iraq, but this is impossible and unacceptable. The militia commander also accused the United States and its regional allies of aiding ISIS and called on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to prioritize the process of expelling foreign troops from the Iraqi territory. Commenting on Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’s participation in the Syrian conflict, Khazali said his group is part of the “axis of resistance” – a term Tehran uses for its network of allies against the US and Israel.

Comment: It is not the first time that Khazali has called for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. “We have repeatedly heard American government officials saying that Washington wants to remain in Iraq after ISIS for the long haul. This is not something that we want to allow to happen and is totally acceptable to us,” he said during a speech in the Iraqi city of Najaf a month ago.  He also called on the Baghdad government to expel American and other foreign forces from the country. “We insist that the status of foreign military forces that had come to Iraq as advisors to help to defeat ISIS should be reviewed. The military victory over ISIS has been attained and only the security threat has remained. And this cannot be achieved through military forces, but needs to be analyzed as a security-intelligence case,” Khazali emphasized.

A day before Khazali’s speech, Kata’ib Hezbollah, another Iranian-backed Iraqi militia group, also warned that its forces will take action against American troops if the Baghdad government and Iraqi parliament fails to take a firm decision to expel foreign forces from the country. The group, also called the Iraqi Hezbollah, issued a statement to mark the sixth anniversary of the US withdrawal from Iraq, and claimed that its “mujahedeen” compelled Washington to pull out its troops from Iraq in 2011.

For nearly three years, the United States and Iran’s proxies within the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) were de facto allies in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. But with the common foe now militarily defeated, Iranian-supported units within the PMF have dialed up anti-American propaganda and are pressuring the Baghdad government to expel the U.S. troops from the country.

In December, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat al-Nujaba threatened violence against the United States in Iraq and the broader region after a proposed U.S. congressional bill called for designating them as terrorist organizations.

Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq has a long history of fighting American troops in Iraq. According to the U.S. government accounts, the Lebanese Hezbollah upon a request by the Iranian government helped form and train AAH in 2005 to carry out attacks against the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq. Khazali has reportedly pledged allegiance to Khamenei, and his group takes orders from Soleimani rather than the government in Baghdad.

Khazali was arrested by the U.S. military in 2007 for his alleged role in high-profile attack in Karbala that had killed five American service members. But he was released two years later along with other AAH members – apparently in an exchange for a British hostage. The U.S. and British government denied it was a prisoner exchange. Last year, Khazali hinted that his fighters could blend in with Iraqi troops to kill American advisers in Mosul.

Kata'ib Hezbollah also has engaged in acts of terrorism against U.S. forces in Iraq. In 2009, the U.S. Departments of Treasury and State designated Kata'ib Hezbollah as a terrorist entity for having “committed, directed, supported, or posed a significant risk of commit acts of violence against Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces.” In the wake of the 2003 Iraqi invasion, the group’s cell members carried out numerous attacks against U.S. forces. According to U.S. officials, Iran’s elite Quds Force funded and trained members of the group jointly with the Lebanese Hezbollah.