Leaders of Iranian backed groups in Iraq threatened the US with retaliation on Tuesday if American forces attack Shiite fighters stationed across the country.
The notice comes after Washington branded Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organisation on Monday, in an attempt to highlight Tehran’s alleged efforts to destabilise the region by supporting non-state armed groups across the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain added the group to their terror list last October.
“So far, there are no military action taken by the US against the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMFs) in Iraq. But, if there is, then we will take a tough stance against the Americans,” said Moeen Kadhmi, a member of the Badr Organisation, one of the oldest Iran-backed groups in the country.
Many militias in Iraq are backed and trained by Iran, which the US regards as among the biggest threats to security in the Middle East. In 2014 many were brought into the Popular Mobilsation Forces, which formalised their role as part of Iraq's security forces, where they played an important role fighting ISIS.
Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq
Badr’s military wing has long demanded the withdrawal of US forces from the country. The group was formed in 1982, as the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and was based in Iran for two decades during the rule of Saddam Hussein.
In 2003, it turned to politics to take advantage of the power vacuum after the US invasion of Iraq.
The group and other militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Al Haq have been have been accused of gross human rights violations.
Kata’ib Hezbollah, a militant, secretive and anti-American group, has repeatedly threatened to attack US forces, describing their presence as an occupation.
The US State Department says it has links to its Lebanese namesake.
Washington considers Hezbollah in Lebanon as a terrorist organisation and has targeted it with sanctions as part of its efforts to counter Iran.
But the move has not halted the group's military wing from maintaining a regional force, which continues to aid Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in his eight-year war.
Shiite militias in Iraq are aspiring to create a corridor between Iran and Syria, completing a crescent of influence across the north, Ivy Shen, an Iraq expert told The National.
“The war has helped with that effort because of demographic changes and displacement that occurred, and in many areas of the north, PMF units have assumed control of former Sunni/mixed areas,” she said.
Attacks on US forces
Washington announced last week that Tehran is responsible for the deaths of at least 608 US troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2011, according to a revised causality estimate.
US Special representative to Iran Brian Hook said during a State Department Press Briefing that Tehran is to blame for 17 per cent of US service personnel deaths, having supplied weaponry to Shiite militias operating in Iraq.
The US official noted the latest death toll is in addition to “the many thousands of Iraqis killed by the IRGC’s proxies.”
Since 2003, more than 4,400 US service members have been killed in Iraq.
After the US invasion of Iraq, groups backed by the IRGC targeted American forces using armour-penetrating bombs to attack patrol units and fired mortars and missiles into their bases.
The militia groups have engaged in concerted efforts to push US troops out of Iraq in a variety of ways.
This can be seen through the recruitment to amass units throughout territories where US troops have a presence, stirring up debate in parliament about the status of US troops in Iraq, Ms Shen said, adding that they have shaped narratives that would suggest that ISIS is a product of US interventions in Iraq to keep Iraq weak.
“They also take most credit for ISIS defeat in Iraq, so they’ve bolstered the claim that they can defend Iraq,” Ms Shen said.
Mr Hook said Washington is "imposing costs on the regime for behaving as an outlaw expansionist regime".
“The regime is weaker today than when we took office two years ago. Its proxies are also weaker. Unless the regime demonstrates a change in policy and behaviour, the financial challenges facing Tehran will mount."