ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – A senior leader of the Iranian-backed Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militias on Tuesday claimed Iraq’s security forces could not operate without the paramilitary groups and that those opposing them would have to brace themselves for a different reality in Iraq.
The deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in an interview with the Associated Press, said US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was “asleep," as Muhandis responded to an earlier comment that Tillerson made, asserting that the militias needed to lay down their arms once the fight against the Islamic State (IS) ends.
"The future of the Hashd al-Shaabi is to defend Iraq," Muhandis said. "The Iraqi army and Iraqi police say they cannot operate without the support of the Hashd."
Tillerson had been vocal about how Iranian militias "should leave Iraq" and allow Iraqis to rebuild. The Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, had, in turn, announced that "no one has the right to interfere in the internal affairs" of the country, including how Iranian proxies operate within its borders.
Muhandis, who is on the US list of designated terrorists and has led the Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militias in their assault on the Kurdistan Region since Oct. 16, did not hide the armed group's close ties with Iran.
"It's no secret," he said, admitting that he "personally seeks spiritual and moral guidance" from the country's leadership.
The PMF gets "material support from Tehran," Muhandis also stated. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has hailed the Hashd, calling them Iraq's "secret weapon."
The Shia paramilitary leader dismissed the US criticism, asserting Iran was the "only country" to support Iraq when the jihadist group emerged in 2014. "It's like you're in a hospital and you need blood. The Americans would be the ones who would show up with the transfusion when it was too late."
The role of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq is raising concerns among many, both in relation to the attacks themselves and abuses against the people of Kurdistan, as well as the role they may play in the upcoming Iraqi elections, scheduled to be held in May.
Muhandis, who was elected to parliament in Baghdad after the fall of the regime but was forced to step down under American pressure, remains an influential political figure through parties aligned with the militias.
"The biggest force that can influence the upcoming elections will be the PMF," the Tehran-affiliated military leader said.
The US-led coalition has already expressed concerns about the danger of militias wreaking havoc in Iraq in the post-IS era.
"We are concerned with some militia groups that don’t have Iraq’s priorities as their first priority," the coalition's spokesperson, US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, told Kurdistan24.
Indeed, over the past three weeks of PMF-led attacks, more than 170,000 people have been displaced from areas seized by the militias and have fled to the Kurdistan Region.
Amnesty International has reported looting and destruction of hundreds of properties near Kirkuk, while a cameraman for Kurdistan TV was brutally murdered in his home in Daquq on Sunday.
Kurdish officials have called on the international community to intervene, especially the US, as the Iranian-backed militias have been using US-supplied weapons and equipment against the people of the Kurdistan Region.
US Congressmen on Wednesday repeatedly emphasized that point in a press conference in Washington, where they heavily criticized the State Department's position, complaining that it promotes Iranian influence in Baghdad, while seriously hurting America’s long-time ally, the Kurds.
Rep. Ron DeSantis (R, Florida), who organized the Capitol Hill press conference at which the legislators spoke, explained: “What you have now is a faithful ally—the Kurds, who’ve been with America for a long time and fought alongside America, being attacked by Iranian-backed forces, who have American blood on their hands.”
Editing by Laurie Mylroie