Iraqi top leaders mourn Shiite militants killed by US strike
Baghdad – Iraq’s top leaders on Monday received condolences for Iraqi Shiite militia leaders killed alongside a top Iranian general in a U.S. airstrike last week, a day after Iraq’s parliament voted in a favor of a bill requesting U.S. troops withdraw from the country.
The vote to oust the 5,200 American troops, which still requires the approval of the Iraqi government, highlighted the sharp deterioration in relations between Washington and Baghdad in recent weeks, amid soaring tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
It was not clear what steps caretaker Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi would take following the parliament’s vote. Experts were split on whether, as a resigned prime minister, he has the authority to request the termination of the U.S. presence.
American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the government to help battle the Islamic State group. The extremists had seized vast areas in the north and west of the country after Iraq’s armed forces collapsed, including the second-largest city, Mosul. A U.S.-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces, including Iran-backed militias, regrouped and drove IS out in a costly three-year campaign.
Unlike the previous U.S. deployment, which was governed by the Status of Forces agreement that clearly spelled out the rules of termination, American troops in Iraq are now in the country based on a less-formal invitation by the the prime minister at the time, Nouri al-Maliki.
Abdul-Mahdi asked parliament on Sunday to take “urgent measures” to ensure the removal of foreign forces from the country. But there are serious concerns that move would allow for an IS resurgence, and the parliament session was boycotted by many Sunni and Kurdish legislators who oppose abolishing the deal.
President Donald Trump promptly warned Iraq that he would levy punishing sanctions if the current government expelled American troops, adding that the U.S. wouldn’t leave without being paid for its military investments in Iraq over the years.
“We will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame,” he said.
The alarming rhetoric by the two allied nations comes amid a recent series of unclaimed attacks targeting military bases that host U.S. troops in Iraq. One attack killed an American contractor in Kirkuk late last year, and was blamed on an Iran-backed militia. That attack sparked a deadly U.S. airstrike targeting that militia, which in turn led to a New Year’s Eve attack by militias loyal to Iran on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Iraqi President Barham Salih said he is “deeply concerned” that Iraq will be embroiled in yet another cycle of conflict, reversing its “hard-won stability” in the aftermath of the war on IS.
“The success in Iraq is real but very fragile. I fear that it cannot survive another conflict in the Middle East,” he told the New Yorker in an interview.
Outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi thanked all the mourners who attended the condolences at the prime minister’s office in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone Monday, and extolled an Iraqi militia commander killed in Friday’s airstrike as a hero.
Iraqis were unanimously outraged by the U.S. attack, which in addition to killing Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, killed senior militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and several others. Al-Muhandis was the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi umbrella group of mostly Shiite paramilitaries loyal to Iran, and was a senior militia commander during the war against IS.
Abdul-Mahdi, the outgoing prime minister, thanked all the mourners who attended the condolences and called al-Muhandis a “heroic leader” with a “pure soul.”
A pullout of U.S. troops could could cripple the fight against Islamic State militants and allow them to make a comeback. Militants affiliated with IS routinely carry out attacks in northern and western Iraq, hiding out in rugged desert and mountainous areas. Iraqi forces rely on the U.S. for logistics and weapons in pursuing them.
An American withdrawal could also enable Iran to deepen its influence in Iraq, which like Iran is a majority Shiite country.