US State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert. Photo: US Department of State video
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The US State Department has again acknowledged the influence of Iran on government forces in Iraq, but reiterated that the United States is in Iraq at Baghdad’s invitation to defeat ISIS, and tensions between Baghdad and “friends in the north” should be resolved through dialogue.
"We recognize that there are various groups, that there are Iraqi forces that are, the PMF [popular mobilization forces] for example, that are a part of the Iraqi government forces but where there is also an Iranian influence. That is something we fully recognize,” said US State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert on Tuesday.
The mainly Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi is the largest element of the PMF. In the war with ISIS in Iraq, the US-led international coalition provided air strikes to the traditional Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces – both of whom were trained and worked closely with the coalition – but not the PMF.
"The United States operates in Iraq at the request of Iraqi government. We are there a part of working in concert with the Iraqi government and the many member of the de-ISIS coalition," said Nauert. “Our aim is to take out ISIS and to assist with that.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office chastised US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after he commented on the weekend that “Iranian militia” in Iraq should “go home.”
“No one has the right to interfere in Iraqi affairs,” read a statement from Abadi’s office.
Nauert responded on Tuesday. "So when the Iraqi government tells us they are done with us, I guess that, that would be the case.”
The Hashd al-Shaabi was formed upon a call by Iraq’s grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the summer of 2014 when ISIS captured several Iraqi provinces. He urged civilians to take up arms and fight.
They were officially brought under the umbrella of the country's armed forces last December, much to the opposition of many Kurdish, Sunni, and some Shiite leaders including firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Nauert said Tillerson’s comments reflected widespread concerns. "I think the Secretary was really speaking to what a lot of people are concerned about. And that is Iranian influence in the region, but also in Iraq," she said. “So that is a concern of the Secretary's."
The Hashd, alongside the traditional Iraqi forces, retook disputed areas from the Peshmerga in military operations last week.
There have been multiple reports of continued violence and attacks, largely against Kurdish populations in the disputed areas. Nauert said the United States "is aware" of the reports.
"We want calm. We want dialogue. We don't want any violent measures taken," urged the spokesperson. "We are working with Iraqi government officials every single day – also our friends in the north."
She was unable to comment on recent Amnesty International reports of displacement and violence against Kurds in Tuz Khurmatu when asked by Rudaw's Namo Abdullah about "evidence" of the actions of Iran-backed militias.
Iraq's parliament authorized Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to take measures after the Kurdistan Region included disputed places like diverse and oil-rich Tuz Khurmatu, Kirkuk, and Shingal in its September 25 independence referendum.
"We would call for calm on all sides,” she said, explaining that the US had expressed concern before the referendum “that this would back Iraq away from a unified government.”
“That remains a concern of ours. And that is being borne out in some of the actions we see in Iraq right now.”
Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul was liberated from ISIS in July. ISIS’ capital Raqqa in Syria was declared liberated on October 20. Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria sacrificed thousands of lives as partner forces to the international coalition in the fight.
Nauert was asked if US President Donald Trump considers ISIS' so-called caliphate to be defeated.
“We aren't there yet,” she replied.