Militias threaten to increase attacks on US assets in Iraq

About 2,500 troops remain despite pressure on government to arrange their exit in talks with Washington

Kataib Hezbollah Iraqi militia hold the picture of the Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, as they gather ahead of the funeral of the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, in Baghdad, Iraq, January 4, 2020. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani
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A group of influential Iran-backed Shiite militias has threatened to escalate attacks against American troops in Iraq.

It said the outcome of the ongoing strategic dialogue with the US lacked explicit commitments for the forces’ withdrawal.

For more than a year, Baghdad and Washington have been holding talks to clarify the nature of their relationship, including the US military presence in Iraq.

The talks also cover security, counterterrorism, economics and energy, political matters and educational and cultural co-operation.

The Iraqi Resistance Co-ordination Committee said it gave the current Iraqi government the opportunity to decide the fate of the foreign troops in three rounds of negotiations with the US.

“But the outcome of the last two rounds – especially the farce during the second round – was very bad and regrettable,” the committee, which includes the Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl Al Haq, Sayyid Al Shuhada and Al Nujaba militias, said in a statement issued on Saturday.

The latest round of talks, on April 7, was the first with the administration of US President Joe Biden.

After that meeting, led by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein, both countries agreed on the “redeployment” of combat troops, transitioning the mission of the US and coalition forces to one focusing on training and advisory tasks.

But they have not established a timetable for the withdrawal, and said the timing would be decided after technical talks.

A few weeks later, the commander of US forces in the Middle East, Gen Kenneth McKenzie, told the US Congress: “I don’t see us completely withdrawing from Iraq in the future.”

Given the recent American statements, “we can say that this government is not honest, capable and qualified to fulfil the Iraqi people’s will to expel the occupying forces from their land and to protect their sovereignty and constitution”, the militia committee said.

It described the meetings’ outcomes as “procrastination” and said the presence of the US forces was a “violation” of both the constitution and of a decision in Parliament last year, adopted mainly by Shiite members, that required the withdrawal of American troops.

“With its rejection to withdraw its forces, the US administration has sent us a clear message that they only understand the language of force and the Iraqi resistance is ready to perform its religious, national and legal duty to achieve that goal,” the committee said.

It said the militias’ continuing operations “would be escalated against the occupation, forcing them to leave, and defeated as they were defeated before”.

Washington withdrew its forces from Iraq in 2011, eight years after leading the invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein and set off a bitter sectarian conflict.

But thousands of American soldiers were redeployed to the country from 2014 onwards as part of an international coalition battling ISIS at the request of the Iraqi government.

Since Suleimani’s killing along with that of a senior Iraqi militia leader, US troops and the US Embassy have become frequent targets of Iran-allied militias seeking to push them out of the country.

Washington decided last year to reduce its troop presence to fewer bases with missile defences, after dozens of attacks on military bases hosting foreign troops across the country.

There are now 2,500 US troops stationed in Iraq, the vast majority of whom support the Iraqi Security Forces in an advisory capacity rather than in combat.