In a rare joint meeting between the leaders of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. top diplomat Rex Tillerson announced that it was time for Iranian-backed militias and their Iranian advisers who helped Iraq defeat the Islamic State group to “go home,” drawing accusations that U.S. foreign policy is dictated by the Saudi Kingdom.
“Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home. The foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control,” Tillerson said at a joint news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis heeded a call to arms by religious clergy in 2014 after the Islamic State group rapidly conquered a third of the country. The militia force called the Popular Mobilization Forces, which received funding and training from Tehran and have been declared part of the Iraqi security apparatus.
A senior U.S. official said Tillerson had been referring to the PMF and the Quds Force, the foreign paramilitary and espionage arm of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The PMF is comprised of dozens of organizations, including Sunni Muslim, Yazidi, Christian and Shiite Turkmen groups. The groups have been excoriated as a sectarian tool of Iran due to the heavy representation of Shia Muslim organizations.
Arab Shia militia include those who ideologically align with the Islamic Republic of Iran such as the Badr Organization, who worked with U.S. troops following the 2003 U.S. invasion, as well as groups like Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq – a paramilitary group that carried out daring operations against occupying forces during the insurrection that followed the collapse of the Iraqi state.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif derided Tillerson’s commands as being dictated by Iran’s oil-rich arch-rival Saudi Arabia. The Saudi rulers have been accused of giving massive funding and logistical aid to Sunni extremist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.
“Exactly what country is it that Iraqis who rose up to defend their homes against ISIS return to?,” Zarif said in a tweet. “Shameful US FP (foreign policy), dictated by petrodollars.”
Iraq’s military, armed by the United States but supported by the PMF, ejected the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim militant group from Mosul and other cities in northern Iraq this year. Several thousand U.S. troops are still in the country, mostly for training but also to carry out raids against the Islamic State group.
A new joint ministerial-level body between Iraq and Saudi Arabia convened its inaugural meeting earlier on Sunday to coordinate their fight against the Islamic State group and on rebuilding Iraqi territory wrested from the group.
Jubeir emphasized historic ties between the two neighbors, which share a border, vast oil resources and many of the same tribes.
“The natural tendency of the two countries and people is to be very close to each other as they have been for centuries. It was interrupted for a number of decades. We’re trying now to make up for lost ground,” he said.
The rare senior meeting, signaling a slight thaw between states that have been at loggerheads for decades, was also attended by Saudi King Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.