BAGHDAD — Iraq’s government moved Monday night to control powerful Iran-backed militias in the country, placing them under the full command of the Iraqi armed forces.
In a decree, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said offices of militias that continue to operate independently within or outside Iraqi cities will be closed and any armed faction working "openly or secretly" against the new guidelines will be considered illegitimate. He said the militias will be subject to the same regulations as the army.
The move comes amid U.S.-Iran tensions and follows several unclaimed attacks near U.S. forces or U.S. interests in Iraq.
Security measures were increased at one of Iraq’s largest air bases that houses American trainers following an attack last week, a top Iraqi air force commander said Saturday. The U.S. military said operations at the base were going on as usual and there were currently no plans to evacuate personnel.
The militias fall under the umbrella of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces, a collection of mostly Shiite militias that fought the Islamic State group and were incorporated into the Iraqi armed forces in 2016. Together they number more than 140,000 fighters, and while they fall under the authority of Iraq's prime minister, the PMF's top brass are politically aligned with Iran.
Several powerful groups welcomed Abdul-Mahdi's decree, but it was not immediately clear if they would fully abide by the order — and implementation could prove tricky.
Kataeb Hezbollah, one of the most powerful of the militias, was among those welcoming the order, saying its forces within Iraq would implement it. But it added that its men fighting outside Iraq would not abide by the new rules — an apparent reference to the group's fighters taking part in the war in neighboring Syria alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces.
When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sat down with Iraqi officials in Baghdad last week as tensions mounted between America and Iran, he delivered a nuanced message: If you’re not going to stand with us, stand aside.
Members of the group comprised the majority of protesters outside the Bahraini Embassy in the Iraqi capital that was stormed this week in anger over Bahrain's hosting of a U.S.-backed conference to promote peace between Arabs and Israelis. An official with the group denied they stormed the embassy.
Populist Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also welcomed the move by Abdul-Mahdi, saying his faction known as the Peace Brigades, or Saraya al-Salam in Arabic, would implement it. In a tweet, he described the decision as an important "first step" toward building a state, but he also expressed concern that the decision would not be implemented properly.
Qais al-Khizali, the leader of one of the most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq, also tweeted that the move to integrate the PMF in the armed forces is a step in the right direction.
Some of the mainly Shiite Iran-backed militias rose to prominence after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when they fought U.S. occupation of the country. In more recent years, the militias fought alongside U.S.-backed Iraqi troops against IS militants, gaining outsized influence and power along the way. In November 2016, the militias were collectively incorporated into the armed forces based on a parliament vote.
One in every six American combat fatalities in Iraq were attributable to Iran, according to a new official estimate.
As tensions soared between the U.S. and Iran in recent weeks, Iraq has found itself caught in the middle between two allies. Iraq hosts more than 5,000 U.S. troops, and it is also home to the powerful Iranian-backed militias, some of whom want the U.S. forces to leave.
The crisis gripping the Middle East stems from President Donald Trump's withdrawal of the United States a year ago from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and then imposing crippling new sanctions on Tehran.
The Iraqi military says three rockets have hit an installation north of Baghdad used by Iraqi troops and where American trainers are also present. There was no immediate word on casualties.
Last month, the U.S. ordered the evacuation of nonessential diplomatic staff from Iraq amid unspecified threats from Iran. Since then, there have been a string of attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq, including military bases where American trainers are based and a rocket attack near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.