Iranian-backed militias in Iraq divided over US decision to ‘withdraw’ troops

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A supporter of Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite armed groups popular mobilisation forces carries the pictures of slain Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and General Qassem Soleimani during a symbolic funeral (EPA)
A supporter of Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite armed groups popular mobilisation forces carries the pictures of slain Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and General Qassem Soleimani during a symbolic funeral (EPA)

Powerful Shia political and militia leaders in Iraq are divided over Joe Biden’s promise to end a US combat mission in Iraq, amid reports Iran’s top general has paid a secret visit to the country to discuss the plan.

Iran-backed militias in Iraq have stepped up attacks on US forces in the country, piling pressure on Iraqi prime minister Mustafa Kadhimi to secure a withdrawal agreement during meetings in Washington this week.

On Monday President Biden promised to end the “combat mission” by the end of the year but did not explicitly specify if he planned to reduce the 2,500 or so American troops believed to be there.

Administration officials told US media outlets it was likely a withdrawal on paper: and most of the forces would remain but be reclassified in training roles.

Nevertheless, Influential Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose calls for anti-US presence protests in the past have seen tens of thousands take to the streets, thanked the Iraqi prime minister for the “efforts undertaken to crystallise this agreement”.

It followed a similar message, from political leader and cleric Ammar al-Hakim, who heads up the Hikma Movement that is known to be relatively closely aligned with Iran’s interests in Iraq. Unusually tweeting in English Hakim said the negotiating team in Washington were “crowned with success”.

The Fatah parliamentary coalition, led by militiaman Hadi al-Ameri, meanwhile described the withdrawal as “a national achievement and positive step”.

But a spokesperson Kataib Hezbollah told The Independent they did not believe a full withdrawal would happen, saying instead it was a “deceptive declaration to maintain the occupation”.“There was no official announcement of withdrawal from President but rather a change in the character of the forces from combative to advisory, and this is a manipulation of words and a clear deception,” the spokesperson said.

“The resistance will remain fully prepared until the real withdrawal.”

It came amid reports in Kurdish news outlet Shafaq News that Esmail Qaani, the new commander of Iran’s Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), secretly travelled to Baghdad to discuss the withdrawal with political and armed groups.

It reportedly followed another secretive meeting he held in Baghdad in June.

The announcement comes on the heels of Biden’s decision to withdraw fully from Afghanistan nearly 20 years after the US launched that war in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Together, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have heavily taxed the U.S. military.

Tensions have flared in Iraq over the continued presence of US troops there, despite the fact the administration maintains they are mostly in advisory and training roles.

That reached boiling point last January when under the orders of former US President Donald Trump, the US assassinated Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in an airstrike on Baghdad airport.

Since then, there have been dozens of rocket attacks on US presence in the country.

Qaani reportedly discussed details of the withdrawal as some Iran-aligned groups in Iraq expressed reservations about the deal.

Saad al Saadi - a senior member of the pro-Iran militia group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, echoed Kateab Hezbollah’s wor local media that “the resistance factions will end their military operations if their conditions for full and true withdrawal are met.”

In an interview with Shafaq news he added: “Otherwise, military action will continue,” noting that they will give an opportunity for the forces to withdraw.

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