BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi defended the role of an Iranian-backed paramilitary force at a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday in Baghdad.
Tillerson arrived on Monday hours after the Iraqi government rejected his call to send home the Popular Mobilisation, an Iran-backed force that helped defeat Islamic State and capture the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk.
In his opening remarks at the meeting with Tillerson, Abadi said Popular Mobilisation “is part of the Iraqi institutions,” rejecting accusations that it is acting as an Iranian proxy.
“Popular Mobilisation fighters should be encouraged because they will be the hope of country and the region,” he added.
Iraq is one of the few countries allied closely to both the United States and Iran, and Tillerson’s effort to drive a wedge between Baghdad and Tehran appeared to have backfired, drawing a sharp statement from the prime minister’s office.
Tillerson visited Iraq a day after a rare joint meeting with Abadi and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
After that meeting, he called on Iraq to halt the work of the Tehran-backed paramilitary units, which have operated alongside government troops in battles against Islamic State and, since last week, in a lightning advance that seized the oil city of Kirkuk from Kurdish security forces.
At his meeting with Abadi in Baghdad, Tillerson urged the Iraqi government and Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil to resolve their conflict on Kurdish self-determination and disputed territories through dialogue.
“We are concerned and a bit sad,” Tillerson said. “We have friends in Baghdad and friends in Erbil, and we encourage all parties to enter into discussion ... and all differences can be addressed.”
Iraqi forces are deploying tanks and artillery just south of a Kurdish-operated oil pipeline that crosses into Turkey, a Kurdish security official said, the latest in a series of Iranian-backed operations against the Kurds.
“Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” Tillerson said on Sunday in Saudi Arabia.
Abadi’s office responded sharply.
“No party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters,” a statement from his office read. It did not cite the prime minister himself but a “source” close to him. It referred to the mainly Shi‘ite Popular Mobilisation as “patriots”.
One of the closest groups to Iran within Popular Mobilisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, reacted to Tillerson’s comment by saying it would be Americans who will be forced to leave Iraq.
“Your forces should get ready to get out of our country once the excuse of Daesh’s presence is over,” said Asaib’s leader, Sheikh Qais al-Khazali, according to the group’s TV channel, al-Aahd.
The international battle against Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq since 2014 saw the United States and Iran effectively fighting on the same side, with both supporting the Iraqi government against the militants.
Washington has 5,000 troops in Iraq and provided air support, training and weapons to Iraqi government forces. At the same time, Iran armed, trained and advised Shi‘ite paramilitaries that often fought alongside the army.
The latest twist in the Iraq conflict, pitting the central government against the Kurds, is trickier for U.S. policymakers. Washington still supports the central government but has also been allied to the Kurds for decades.
Iran is the pre-eminent Shi‘ite power in the Middle East. Shi‘ites, including Abadi, are the majority in Iraq, but it also has large Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities. In the campaign for the Kurdish referendum, Iran backed the government against the Kurds.
Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of foreign operations for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, repeatedly warned Kurdish leaders to withdraw from the oil city of Kirkuk or face an onslaught by Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed fighters, Kurdish officials briefed on the meetings said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed Tillerson’s remarks. The paramilitaries could not go home because “they are at home” already, he was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.
Abadi has asserted his authority with the defeat of Islamic State in Mosul and the Iraqi army’s sweep through Kirkuk and other areas that were held by the Kurds.
The buildup at the Kurdish oil export pipeline is taking place northwest of Mosul, an official from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s security council said.
The loss of Kirkuk dealt a major blow to the Kurds, who had been steadily building an autonomous region in northern Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, who oppressed them for decades.
“We are concerned about continued military build-up of Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces towards the Kurdistan Region,” said the Kurdistan Region Security Council in a statement.
Elections for the Iraqi Kurdistan region’s presidency and parliament set for Nov. 1 will be delayed because political parties failed to present candidates, the head of the electoral commission, Hendrean Mohammed, told Reuters.
Parties have been unable to focus on the elections in the turmoil that followed the referendum, a Kurdish lawmaker said on condition of anonymity.
Additional reporting by Jon Landay,; writing by Michael Georgy,; editing by Peter Graff, Larry King