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Iraq militia says to keep weapons, citing instability

BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - A Shi’ite militia that fought U.S. troops in Iraq said Tuesday it will not lay down its arms immediately despite the departure of American forces.

Abu Mustafa al-Khazali, one of the commanders of Kata’ib Hizballah, cited unstable Iraqi politics and uncertainty about the mission and size of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad as reasons for maintaining its war posture.

The leader of Asaib al-Haq, another Shi’ite militia that opposed U.S. troops in Iraq, said this month the group would lay down its weapons after a “historic Iraqi victory” over American forces.

U.S. military commanders named Asaib al-Haq and Kata’ib Hizballah as major forces on the Iraq battlefield in recent years and said both are funded and armed by neighboring Iran.

“Challenges still exist, and real clarity is still missing on the number of individuals at the U.S. embassy. Risks still exist and the political process is unstable,” Khazali said.

With the departure of the last U.S. troops on December 18, the U.S. mission in Iraq was left to the embassy in Baghdad, one of America’s largest. It is expected to have about 16,000 personnel, including thousands of security contractors.

Khazali spoke at a ceremony organized by Shi’ite militia brigades in the southern oil hub of Basra, where hundreds of supporters cheered the “victorious” Iraqi resistance. Iraqi police secured the event, which was attended by politicians and community leaders.

“No to America!” Khazali chanted to supporters. He was wearing a grey suit and shirt open at the neck, without a tie, in the style of Iranian politicians.

“I congratulate the great people of Iraq for this remarkable victory... It’s a defeat for the American forces, not a withdrawal.”

Iraq is plagued by Sunni Islamist insurgents and Shi’ite militias nearly nine years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed sectarian violence that killed tens of thousands of people.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have flagged Shi’ite militias, equipped and trained by powerful regional players such as Iran, as ongoing threats to Iraq’s stability as its security forces try to cope with daily bombings, assassinations and other attacks without U.S. troops.

Khazali said it was still too early for Kata’ib Hizballah to think of joining the political process, but he said his group supported government efforts to maintain peace and stability.

“Today Iraq is in our own hands, run by an elected government, with no return to the pressure of foreign troops, conspiracies, mass graves and coups,” Khazali said. “Any changes should be made through the ballot box.”

He said his militia had no plan to join any political group and had concerns about the current political crisis, which began after the U.S. departure when the Shi’ite-led government moved against two Sunni politicians, reviving fears of sectarian conflict.

“A lot of work needs to be done for a better future in Iraq. There are still some challenges and we don’t have a clear understanding of what’s going on in the political arena,” he said.

Writing by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Jim Loney