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Iraq: Pro-Iran groups welcome US pledge to end combat operations

Pro-Iran militias have been accused of carrying out around 50 rocket and drone attacks this year against US interests in Iraq
The Conquest Alliance, the political wing of Hashd-al-Shaabi, said it considered Biden's announcement 'to be a positive step towards the full sovereignty of Iraq' (AFP)

Several powerful pro-Iran groups in Iraq on Tuesday welcomed an announcement by Washington that US combat operations in the country will end this year, an outcome they have long demanded. 

US President Joe Biden declared on Monday that "we're not going to be, at the end of the year, in a combat mission," as he hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi for White House talks.

US troops would continue to provide training and assistance to the Iraqi military, including also intelligence co-operation, falling short of pro-Iran factions' demands for a full withdrawal.

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However, the Conquest Alliance, the political wing of Iraq's Hashd-al-Shaabi paramilitary alliance, which is dominated by pro-Iran groups, said it considered Biden's announcement "to be a positive step towards the full sovereignty of Iraq".    

"We hope that it will materialise on the ground," it added. 

Middle East Eye first reported in April that the US and Iraq had agreed to the withdrawal of all foreign combat forces operating under the umbrella of the US-led military coalition.

Policy tweak

US troops were invited into Iraq in 2014 - three years after ending an eight-year occupation that began with the invasion to topple former President Saddam Hussein - by a government desperate to halt a sweeping advance by Islamic State (IS).

Iraq's government declared IS defeated in late 2017, but the group retains sleeper cells and still launches periodic suicide attacks.    

Last week IS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at the Al-Woheilat market in Sadr City, a predominantly Shia area in Baghdad, that killed at least 30 people.

The US and Iran are both major allies of Iraq and share an enmity towards IS, but Tehran also considers Washington its arch foe and has long pressed for a withdrawal of US troops from its neighbour.

Pro-Iran armed factions have been accused of carrying out around 50 rocket and drone attacks this year against US interests in Iraq.

Since last year, the principle role of the remaining US troops - now totalling 2,500, after withdrawals under Biden's predecessor Donald Trump - had already been to train, advise and support the Iraqi military in its fight against IS.

Biden's announcement therefore indicated little major change of policy.

'End of the foreign presence'

Kadhimi, who is seen as friendly to the US, has tried to check the power of pro-Iran militias.

But his government condemned US air strikes against Iran-aligned fighters along its border with Syria in late June, calling it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

The face-to-face meeting in the Oval Office was to give political cover to Kadhimi, in power for little over a year and under intensifying pressure over the continued US presence, analysts said.

Several other pro-Iran groups in Iraq also reacted positively to Biden's announcement.

The Imam Ali Brigades lauded "the end of the foreign presence" and said it "thanked the [Iraqi] government for keeping its promises", while influential Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr also welcomed the move.  

But more radical pro-Iran groups have not yet responded, Reuters reported.