Iraqis, bristling over Israeli airstrike, renew call for U.S. troops to get out –
A U.S. official confirmed Friday that Israel had struck a base for the Hashd al Shaabi, an umbrella group of Shiite-dominated militias also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, many with deep links to Iran. Two Iranian commanders were reported killed in the attack, which occurred in July.
It was unclear whether Israel was behind three other explosions that have destroyed militias’ weapons depots in Iraq.
The confirmation coincided with an edict from Grand Ayatollah Kazem Haeri, a powerful Iraqi cleric based in Iran who is thought to be a mentor to some of Iraq’s top militia leaders. He blamed both Israel and the U.S. for the attack and proscribed American troops’ presence in Iraq.
“I declare it is forbidden for any American military force or its ilk to remain in Iraq under any pretext: whether for military training and advising, or for counter-terrorism,” Haeri said in a statement issued from the Iranian city of Qom.
Haeri’s statement followed similar condemnations from the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi (better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis), who accused U.S. forces on Wednesday of conducting reconnaissance on Hashd bases and bringing in Israeli drones for the strikes.
The U.S. official who confirmed the strike said Washington “strongly supports Israel’s right to self-defense,” adding, “the United States condemns the Iranian regime’s provocative actions in Iraq.” The official was not authorized to speak publicly, and spoke on condition of anonymity.
There are roughly 5,000 American troops stationed across Iraq, providing training, assistance and advice to Iraq’s security forces.
During the fight against Islamic State, U.S. troops even cooperated — albeit uneasily — with the Hashd, which was formed as an all-volunteer force in 2014 to counter the extremist threat. It has since become a formal part of Iraq’s armed forces.
Since Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq in 2017, there have been perennial calls for U.S. forces to leave. (Iraqi lawmakers railed against the U.S. presence after President Trump’s unannounced visit to American troops in the country in December.)
Iraq’s national security council, which is headed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, issued a statement Friday saying that the Hashd had a “prominent role in combating terror,” and that the government had a responsibility to protect it, along with all of Iraq’s military formations.
Earlier this month, Abdul Mahdi had prohibited all military flights, both foreign and Iraqi, from using Iraqi airspace without permission.
Two officials with the Trump administration, speaking to reporters anonymously to discuss internal matters, refused to say whether Israel was behind the explosions, and speculated they could have been accidents due to improper storage and the extreme summer heat. (Explosions in weapons depots are not an uncommon occurrence in Iraq, where temperatures in August regularly top 110 degrees.)
Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson said the U.S. supported Iraqi sovereignty and had “repeatedly spoken out against any potential actions by neighbors that could lead to violence in Iraq.”
“Iraqis have a right to control their own internal security and protect their democracy. In particular, Iran must not use Iraqi territory to threaten other countries in the region,” he said.