Various factions of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a group of mostly Shiite, Iran-backed militias in Iraq, are demanding a full U.S. withdrawal from the country, calling American troops a “magnet for terrorists.”
The PMF, whose members have previously threatened to kill U.S. soldiers as a primary target before attacking their rivals in the Sunni Islamic State (ISIS), are a legal wing of the Iraqi armed forces. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi legalized the group before the liberation of Mosul, the nation’s second-largest city, from ISIS. PMF fighters have since turned their weapons against the U.S.-allied Kurdish Peshmerga in Kirkuk.
The United States has fought alongside some PMF brigades. The Peshmerga allege that the PMF used American weapons against them.
The Badr Organization, one of the more moderate elements of the PMF, issued a statement through spokesman Kareem Nuri demanding the United States leave the country entirely.
“The two governments should coordinate to ensure a full withdrawal. U.S. presence will be cause for internal polarization and a magnet for terrorists,” Nuri said, according to Reuters.
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah Brigades joined the call, threatening to attack American troops if they do not leave immediately.
“We are serious about getting the Americans out, using the force of arms because the Americans don’t understand any other language,” a Hezbollah Brigades spokesman said. While the brigades are a separate entity from the international narco-terrorist organization Hezbollah, they enjoy close relationships with the larger Hezbollah’s patron state Iran.
These calls are far from the first of their kind. In late January, the Sayyid al-Shuhada force within the PMF insisted the U.S. presence in the country was there to “weaken Iraq.” Abadi, a spokesman argued, must “take responsibility in preventing the U.S. or any other country from targeting the Iraqi security forces including the Hashd al-Shaabi.”
In November, a general PMF spokesman called “on the U.S. military forces as well as its military advisors to leave our country as soon as possible,” suggesting Iraqi legislation expel the troops. That same month, the Saraya al-Ashura militia within the PMF said the U.S. army “has become our direct enemy … they now have become a target for our forces.”
Iraqi government officials have claimed that they are working with American officials to secure the reduction of American troop numbers in the country by “at least 60 percent,” according to the Shiite interest AhlulBayt News Agency. The United States publicly claims it has between 5,000 and 9,000 troops in Iraq.
Abadi, whose relationship with the PMF is complicated, appeared to cede to their demands with remarks on Wednesday confirming that a plan exists to remove U.S. troops from Iraq. “Today I affirm that there is a project and plan based on [a mutual] agreement to decrease the number of [Coalition] forces gradually,” he said.
Abadi insisted, however, that a “real danger” of an ISIS resurgence exists without a U.S. presence in Iraq. In Kirkuk, where the United States allowed the PMF to invade and expel the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Islamic State made an almost immediate resurgence. Kirkuk fell into Peshmerga hands in 2014 after the Iraqi army fled an Islamic State attack.
“The battle against Daesh (ISIS) has ended and so the level of the American presence will be reduced,” Iraqi government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi also reportedly told the Associated Press on Tuesday, according to Kurdish news outlet Rudaw.
American officials have pushed back against the predicted drawdown in Iraq. “We’re clear the enemy is still capable of offensive action and retains the ability to plan and inspire attacks worldwide,” Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, director of operations for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, said this week. “Although OIR’s [Operation Inherent Resolve] force composition may change over time to ensure we have the best forces on hand for the task, we will retain an appropriate amount of capabilities as well as an advisory presence.”
Coalition spokesman U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon insisted in a Twitter statement that the U.S. presence in the country “will be conditions-based, proportional to the need, and in coordination with the Iraqi government.”
The U.S. State Department has not confirmed these reports, either. Asked about the PMF’s belligerent calls for the end of an American presence in Iraq, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert insisted American troops “will stay there as long as the Iraqi Government wants us there to not only continue to help maintain the peace, but also assist with stabilization projects.”
“Threats aside, we’re there at the invitation of the Iraqi Government,” Nauert insisted on Tuesday.
Speaking to Reuters, an unnamed U.S. official addressed this threat head-on, saying, “We take anything that sounds like a threat from anyone against Americans seriously.”