Several powerful pro-Iran groups in Iraq on Tuesday welcomed an announcement by Washington that US combat operations in the country will end this year, an outcome they have long demanded.
US President Joe Biden declared on Monday that “we’re not going to be, at the end of the year, in a combat mission,” as he hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi for White House talks.
US troops would continue to provide training and assistance to the Iraqi military, including intelligence cooperation, falling short of pro-Iran factions’ demands for a full withdrawal.
But the Conquest Alliance, the political wing of Iraq’s Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary network, which is dominated by pro-Iran groups, said it considered Biden’s announcement “to be a positive step toward the full sovereignty of Iraq.”
“We hope that it will materialize on the ground,” it added.
US troops were invited into Iraq in 2014 — three years after ending an eight-year occupation that began with the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein — by a government desperate to halt a sweeping advance by the Daesh group.
Iraq’s government declared Daesh defeated in late 2017, but the extremists retain sleeper cells and still launch periodic suicide attacks.
The US and Iran are both major allies of Iraq and share an enmity toward Daesh, but Tehran also considers Washington its arch foe and has long pressed for a withdrawal of US troops from its neighbor.
Pro-Iran armed factions stand accused of carrying out around 50 rocket and drone attacks this year against US interests in Iraq.
Since last year, the principal role of the remaining US troops — now totaling 2,500, after drawdowns under Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump — had already been to train, advise and support the Iraqi military in its fight against Daesh.
Biden’s announcement therefore indicated little major change of policy.
The face-to-face meeting was to give political cover to Al-Kadhimi, in power for little over a year and under intensifying pressure over the continued US presence, analysts said.
Several other pro-Iran groups in Iraq also reacted positively.
The Imam Ali Brigades lauded “the end of the foreign presence” and said it “thanked the (Iraqi) government for keeping its promises,” while influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr also welcomed Biden’s announcement.
The US and Iran are both major allies of Iraq and share an enmity toward Daesh, but Tehran also considers US its arch foe and has long pressed for a withdrawal of US troops from its neighbor.
But more radical pro-Iran groups have not yet responded.
Meanwhile, Iran’s state TV reported on Tuesday that authorities arrested members of a group linked to Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency amid ongoing protests over water shortages in the country’s southwest.
The report said “a network of spy agents, with a large amount of weapons and ammunition” was arrested after sneaking into Iran from across its western border. It claimed the alleged Mossad agents intended to use the weapons during riots in Iran and also for assassinations.
The state TV did not elaborate or say how many alleged agents were arrested or when they purportedly infiltrated into Iran. Iran borders Turkey and Iraq to the west.
At least five people have been killed amid days of protests over water shortages affecting Iran’s Khuzestan province. That’s according to statements carried by state-run media in Iran.
Iran occasionally announces the detention of people it says are spying for foreign countries, including the US and Israel.
Western Iran has seen occasional fighting between Iranian forces and Kurdish separatists as well as militants linked to Daesh.
In July 2020, Iran said “terrorists” killed two people in an attack in the Iranian province of Kurdistan. Last year, Iran executed a man convicted of leaking information to the US and Israel about prominent Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps general Qassem Soleimani, who was later killed by a US drone strike in Iraq.
Source: Arab News