Shi'ite militia leader in Iraq threatens US, slams 'Zionist regime'
Protesters gather near the main provincial government building in Basra, Iraq July 15, 2018. (Photo by: ESSAM AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS)

Two Shi'ite militia leaders spoke out over the weekend, with one threatening the US, and the other demanding American troops leave Iraq.

Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba spokesman Hashim al-Mousawi slammed the US and Israel after the US last week designated the group as a terrorist threat.

Iraqi Transportation Minister Hadi al-Amiri said he was looking forward to a visit by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and that he opposes the continued US presence in Iraq.

On March 5, the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control placed Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba on its Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List, under what the office calls its Counter Terrorism Designation.

The US pointed to the organization itself and its leader as a threat, saying it has "committed, or poses a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism."

The group, which is closely linked to Iran, in 2017 said US troops were a legitimate target. In February 2018, the group vowed to support Hezbollah in Lebanon in a war against Israel.

Last year, Iraqi MP Karim Alawi said the US was spying on Shi'ite militias in Iraq. Iran's PressTV sought to argue that the move was dangerous and that Harakat Hezbollah had played a key role in the war on ISIS.

Mousawi told Fars News that the region faces a variety of US-driven plots, including a push for normalization with the "Zionist regime" and economic pressure on Iran. He argued that the Iranian backed "axis of resistance," of which Harakat Hezbollah is a part, has defeated these plots, including attempts by the US to loot Syrian resources.

"Hezbollah [in Lebanon] today represents a large part of the Lebanese people and an integral part of Lebanon," he boasted. He said the commanders of Harakat Hezbollah were prepared for a confrontation with the US. "We will not retreat in the face of any country that violates Iraqi sovereignty."

Mousawi also said the group would use parliamentary means first, but that it viewed the conflict as a regional struggle. He made a point of condemning the US role in the Gulf and said the group had its own "Golan unit" to fight against Israel.

The presence of Shi'ite militias in Iraq, some of which fought the US after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, and most of which are closely linked to Iran, raises questions about the continued presence of US troops in Iraq. US forces returned to Iraq to help fight ISIS in 2014.

Initially that footprint was small, but it had grown with the war on ISIS, and to provide logistic support for US forces in Syria. When US President Donald Trump in December 2017 said the US would withdraw from Syria, he also told US forces at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq that the US would pull troops back to Iraq and "watch" Iran. This comes in the context of a US push against Iran's role in the region and new sanctions rolled out last year.

Iraqi officials have rejected the US using Iraq to "watch" Iran. Iraqi President Barham Salih has said at least three times in the last two months that Iraq must not become a center of the Iran-US power struggle.

He and other Iraqi officials reiterated this statement at the Sulaimani Forum last week. Iraqi officials have said it is up to parliament to decide if US forces will stay. Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Fatah Alliance, the second largest party in parliament, has indicated that he opposes the US presence in Iraq. Amiri, a former fighter alongside the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, is head of the Badr Organization, one of the largest of the Shi'ite militias which became part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in 2014.

The PMU helped defeat ISIS and became an official Iraq paramilitary group in 2016. In 2017, then-US secretary of state Rex Tillerson caused controversy in Iraq when he said the Shi'ite-dominated PMU should "go home" now that the war on ISIS was over.

Haider al-Abadi, then prime minister of Iraq, told Tillerson that the PMU were the hope for the future of Iraq and the region. Their regional role has been on display as many of these Shi'ite units are not only closely allied to Iran, but also to Hezbollah. Qais Khazali, of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, visited the Lebanese border near Israel, and indicated he would support Hezbollah in a war with Israel. This is part of Iran's plan to create a "road to the sea," or a network of allied groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon that are either part of the state, or work as a parallel states supporting Iran and local armed groups.

The US sees this as a threat but doesn't know how to confront it. US officials, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton, have called for the US to stay in Syria to counterbalance these Iranian-allied groups. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Lebanon this month, according to reports. This will raise tensions with Hezbollah.

The issue of US bases in Iraq is also coming to a head this year. Amiri was quoted in Tasnim News over the weekend as saying he disagreed with any US presence. He also said he welcomed the visit of Iran's president to Iraq.

The overall picture in Iraq is one in which the US faces an uphill struggle to maintain its presence as ISIS is defeated. The pro-Iranian parties sense that they are in control. Although the Kurdistan autonomous region has tended to support the US staying in Iraq to help fight ISIS remnants, the tensions with pro-Iranian Shi'ite parties and armed groups is growing.

Some Shi'ite militias have attempted to interrupt US patrols in Anbar Province and Mosul in recent months. US Inspector-General reports at the Defense Department also frequently mention these pro-Iranian groups as a threat in Iraq. That the leaders of the groups say they will use parliament for now to oppose the US presence means they seek a political solution at the moment, and are wary of an armed confrontation.

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