Baghdad: Several powerful pro-Iran groups in Iraq 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-Kadhemi for White House talks.
US troops would continue to provide training and assistance to the Iraqi military, including also intelligence co-operation, falling short of pro-Iran factions’ demands for a full withdrawal.
But the Conquest Alliance, the political wing of Iraq’s Hashed-al-Shaabi paramilitary network, which is dominated by pro-Iran groups, said it considered Biden’s announcement “to be a positive step towards the full sovereignty of Iraq.”
“We hope that it will materialise on the ground,” it added.
The US military was invited into Iraq in 2014-three years after the end of the eight-year occupation that began with the invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein-a government desperate to prevent the Islamic State Group from advancing in its entirety.
The Iraqi government announced at the end of 2017 that the Islamic State had been defeated, but Sunni extremists still kept sleeping berths and regularly launched suicide attacks.
The United States and Iran are both Iraq’s main allies and hostile to the Islamic State, but Tehran also regards Washington as its number one enemy and has long urged the withdrawal of US troops from its neighbors.
The pro-Iranian armed factions are accused of carrying out about 50 rocket and drone attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq this year.
Since last year, following the drawdown of Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, the main role of the remaining U.S. military — now a total of 2,500 men — has been training, advising and supporting the Iraqi army against the Islamic State.
Therefore, Biden’s statement indicates that there have been few major changes in policy.
Analysts say that the face-to-face meeting is to provide political cover for Khadmi, who has been in power for a little more than a year and is facing increasing pressure because of the continued existence of the United States.
Several other pro-Iranian groups in Iraq also responded positively.
The Imam Ali Brigade praised the “end of foreign presence” and expressed “thanks to the (Iraqi) government for keeping its promises”, and the influential Shia clergyman Muqtada Sadr also welcomed Biden’s announcement.
But the more radical pro-Iranian groups have yet to respond.