Iraqi president praises Suleimani for fighting ISIS but urges national unity

Second anniversary of assassinations observed amid rise in pro-Iran militia attacks against US troops

Iraqi President Barham Salih on Wednesday praised assassinated Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis for their role in defeating ISIS but called for national unity to avoid repeating the mistakes that allowed the terror group to overrun large areas of the country.

The two men played a vital role in the more than three-year gruelling fight against ISIS between 2014 and late 2017 when the terror group overran about a third of Iraq.

They rallied thousands of volunteers into the government-approved Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella group that is made up mainly of pro-Tehran influential Shiite militias.

The militias played a vital role in defending Baghdad and defeating ISIS.

But they have strengthened their hand in the years since the victory and still control large areas with heavy weapons.

Suleimani, who led the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Al Muhandis, the founder of the influential Iran-allied Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, were killed in a US drone attack near Baghdad international airport in January 2020. President Donald Trump said at the time that Suleimani had planned imminent action against US personnel in Iraq.

Hours before Mr Salih addressed a ceremony to commemorate the second anniversary of the killings, a rocket hit an Iraqi military base hosting US troops near Baghdad International Airport, the fourth such attack on American soldiers since Saturday.

US officials had given warnings of a likely sharp rise of such attacks as Iran-allied Shiite militias vowed to retaliate the death of Suleimani and Al Muhandis.

“The martyrs are great and influential figures in our country’s history,” Mr Salih said at the ceremony, one of a series of events that started last week in Iraq.

Iraq facing ‘terrorism attack’

“The Iranian great leader Qassem Suleimani came to us in a tough moment and teamed up with our security forces and citizens to face Daesh and save our country,” Mr Salih added, using the Arabic acronym of ISIS.

Iraq, he said, faced “a dangerous terrorism attack”.

As ISIS poured over the border from Syria, the Iraqi army collapsed due to rampant corruption and poor leadership.

The PMF emerged out of a call by Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, for volunteers to join the war to defend the country. Tens of thousands heeded the call, enlisting in militia factions, many of which have existed for years and fought American forces in Iraq in the 2000s.

Backed by the US-led International Coalition, Iraq declared the victory over ISIS in late 2017. Since then, ISIS sleeper cells have been trying to regroup and still launch lethal attacks but are not able to control significant areas.

Alluding to divisions that have plagued the country for years, Mr Salih called on Iraqis to close ranks.

“We are facing today a big national responsibility in protecting and boosting our victories to make sure not to face the [same] tragedies caused by the terrorism,” he said.

Deep divides

“And for that we need to unify the national ranks and join forces in order to protect the community peace,” he added.

Since the killing of Suleimani and Al Muhandis, Iraq has been deeply divided between the pro-Iran camps, which call for the expulsion of US troops and those who want to end Iran's influence in the country.

The country is also torn between the competing demands of Washington and Tehran, its principal allies.

That conflict has led to series of attacks against the US interests in Iraq by Shiite militias from one side and harassment and sometimes assassinations for those from the other camp for which the militias stand accused.

Nobody was hurt in Wednesday’s airport attack, Iraqi security and military sources said. The rocket was fired from the nearby Jihad district in western Baghdad, where troops found the launcher with one rocket, they said.

It is the fourth such attack on US forces in Iraq since Saturday with US C-Ram air defences also shooting down so-called suicide drones on Monday and Tuesday.

The remains of the wreckage of a drone that was shot down are seen at Ain Al Asad air base in Anbar province on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

Two explosive-laden drones were shot down on Tuesday as they approached Ain Al Asad base, west of Baghdad, which hosts US forces.

A similar attack was foiled on Monday when air defences destroyed two drones as they approached a base hosting US forces near Baghdad International Airport.

During the weekly Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi denounced the attacks as “absurd acts”.

He said they were intended to “disturb the country’s security and stability”.

By the end of last year, the US announced it was ending combat missions and would shift to a training and advisory role based on an agreement with Iraq. But 2,500 US troops are still stationed there.

US officials in recent weeks said they expected an increase in attacks against their forces in Iraq and Syria, in part because of the second anniversary of the assassination.

Although there were no immediate claims of responsibility for the recent attacks, Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran vowed to retaliate for the death of the two men.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said on Monday that Mr Trump must face trial for the killings or Tehran would take revenge.

Updated: January 5th 2022, 2:47 PM