Iraqi militias meet in Iran as splits appear

Populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr meets rivals in Qom as Tehran seeks to maintain its grip without Suleimani

epa08100389 Iraqi men walk next to the picture of Iraqi Shia cleric, politician and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, installed by his supporters at the Al Tahrir square in Baghdad, Iraq, 03 January 2020. Media reports state that Muqtada al-Sadr reactivated his armed group 'the Imam Mahdi Army', after killing of Iran's Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on 03 January 2020 following a US airstrike at Baghdad's international airport.  EPA/MURTAJA LATEEF
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Iraqi militia chiefs met in Iran this week to resolve a power struggle and differences on how to counter Washington after the US killed a senior operative who oversaw Iranian activities in Iraq.

The January 3 killing of Qassem Suleimani brought into the open disputes among Tehran’s allies in Baghdad.

Suleimani was Iran’s top external enforcer and oversaw pro-Iranian militia across the region.

Populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr has sought to extend his influence over other militias after Suleimani’s killing, as opposed to power-broking role he has played for years.

Mr Sadr has had a complex relationship with Tehran, his stance oscillating between that of a populist-nationalist Iraqi figure and a supporter of Iran’s vision for its neighbour.

But in September, the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei released a photo of Mr Sadr and Mr Khamenei, as well as Suleimani, in Tehran, signalling their differences had been settled.

The official Iraqi news agency said Mr Al Sadr met Iraqi “faction leaders” in the Iranian city of Qom on Sunday.

The faction leaders were not named in the report. But Iranian state media said that among those present was Hadi Al Amiri, the head of the Badr Organisation, the main Iraqi militia backed by Tehran.

Mr Al Amiri also presides over the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a pro-Iranian, mostly Shiite militia constellation nominally integrated into the Iraqi state. Mr Al Sadr is linked with several groups in the PMF, also known as Hashed Al Shaabi.

Differences within Iraqi paramilitary groups sponsored by Iran sharpened after Mr Sadr called on the militias to refrain from attacking US forces in retaliation for the US strike.

The attack in January 3 also killed Mr Al Amiri’s deputy at the PMU, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis.

The Iraqi news agency quoted Mr Al Sadr’s office as saying the Qom meeting discussed “some important matters regarding the presence of the American occupation in Iraq”.

A spokesman for Mr Sadr could not be reached.

On Wednesday, Mr Al Sadr said the Shiite militias must stand down.

He indicated that the crisis was contained after Iran retaliated for Suleimani’s killing with ballistic missiles fired at US forces in Iraq.

No one was hurt in the Iranian retaliation.

Mr Sadr said the militias must “not start military action” and contain what he termed militant elements within them.

US troops should leave but that the country must be “patient and use political, parliamentary and international methods” to achieve this goal, he added.

But separately, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, has warned on Saturday that Iran’s retaliation was only the beginning of a “long road” hours before rockets hit Iraqi bases used by US troops. The attack wounded two Iraqi officers and two airmen at Balad airbase, 80 kilometres north of Baghdad.

The target of the attack, US forces, appeared to no longer be at the base.