Iraqi militias meet in Iran as splits appear

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Iraqi militia chiefs met in Iran this week to resolve a power struggle and differences on how to counter Washington after the US killed a senior operative who oversaw Iranian activities in Iraq.

The January 3 killing of Qassem Suleimani brought into the open disputes among Tehran’s allies in Baghdad.

Suleimani was Iran’s top external enforcer who oversaw pro-Iranian militia across the region.

Populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr sought to extend his influence over other militias after Suleimani’s killing, as opposed to power broking role he has played for years.

Mr Sadr has had a complex relationship with Tehran, with his stance oscillating between a populist-nationalist Iraqi figure and a supporter of Iran’s vision for its neighbour.

But in September, the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei released a photo of Mr Sadr and Mr Khamenei, as well as Suleimani, in Tehran, signalling that their differences had been settled.

The official Iraqi news agency said Mr Al Sadr met in the Iranian city of Qom on Sunday with Iraqi “faction leaders” it did not name.

Among them, Iranian state media said, was Hadi Al Amiri, head of the Badr Organisation, the main Iraqi militia backed by Tehran.

Hadi Al Amiri, head of the Badr Organisation militia, in Baghdad January 6, 2020. AFP

Mr Al Amiri also presides over the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a pro-Iranian, mostly Shiite, militia constellation nominally integrated into the Iraqi state. Mr Al Sadr is linked with several groups in the PMF, also known as the Hashd Al Shaabi.

Differences within Iraqi paramilitary groups sponsored by Iran sharpened after Mr Sadr called on the militias to refrain from attacking US forces in retaliation for the US strike.

The January 3 attack also killed Mr Al Amiri’s deputy at the PMU, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis.

The Iraqi news agency quoted Mr Al Sadr’s office as saying the Qom meeting discussed “some important matters regarding the presence of the American occupation in Iraq”.

A spokesman for Mr Sadr could not be reached.

On Wednesday, Mr Al Sadr said the Shiite militias must stand down.

He indicated that the crisis was contained after Iran retaliated for Mr Suleimani’s killing with ballistic missiles fired at US forces in Iraq.

No one was hurt in the Iranian retaliation.

Mr Sadr said the militias must "not start military action" and contain what he termed militant elements within them.

US troops should leave but that the country must be “patient and use political, parliamentary and international methods” to achieve this goal, he added.

However, separately the head of the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, has warned on Saturday that Iran’s retaliation was just the beginning of a “long road” hours before rockets hit Iraqi bases with US troops. The attack wounded two Iraqi officers and two airmen at Balad air base, 80 kilometres north of Baghdad.

The target of the attack was US forces that appeared no longer at the base.

It is unclear what the latest attack means for Mr Sadr and his calls for calm.

Updated: January 14, 2020 10:46 AM

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