By Carlo Muñoz
Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi, the top government official representing the country’s Sunni minority, on Tuesday denied claims that Baghdad is pressing the Trump administration to directly arm and train the country’s Sunni militias to counter the growing influence of Iranian-backed Shia paramilitaries.Speaking to reporters after a speech at the Washington-based U.S. Institute for Peace, Osama al-Nujaifi said he had not come to lobby the U.S. government for military support on behalf of Iraq’s Sunni armed groups.
But he also said in his address that the growing firepower of Iranian-backed Shiite militias looms as the nation’s most pressing future security threat now that Islamic State has been pushed out of Mosul, Tal Afar and other cities it held in the north.
The Iranian-backed forces “have gained a lot of power, and maybe they can pose more problems,” Mr. al-Nujaifi said.
In meetings with senior State Department and administration officials earlier this week, Mr. al-Nujaifi said he suggested continued American military support for local and tribal groups in the embattled Nineveh province of northern Iraq.
Nineveh is one of Iraq’s most ethnically complex provinces, where Iraqi Sunni, Shias, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians and Christians call home. Mosul is located there, and was only liberated from Islamic State control by government forces backed by American air power in July.
The Shia paramilitaries were largely side-lined in the fight for Mosul over reports the militias participated in extrajudicial killings during previous anti-Islamic State offensives in largely Sunni Fallujah and Anbar provinces. The militias, trained and equipped by units from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its elite Quds Force units, were seen by coalition officials as part of an overt effort by Iran to expand its influence in Iraq, similar to Tehran’s efforts backing government forces in neighbouring Syria.
The decision by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to deploy the Shia militias and put them under the Iraqi military’s chain of command, using them to devastating effect in offensives against Islamic State in Tal Afar and Hawija, has only strengthened Tehran’s hand in Iraq, analysts say.
On Tuesday Mr. al-Nujaifi minced no words on where the alliances of the majority of the Shia militias lie. “Some have no problems, [but] some have affiliations and loyalty” to Iran and not the central government in Baghdad.
“They have their own political aspirations, their own [political] agendas,” he said.
Mr. al-Nujaifi said his discussions with U.S. officials this week centred on the long-term U.S. military role in Iraq after Islamic State is fully driven from the country. American forces “shall stay for some time” in Iraq, he said, noting the fragile security situation in a post-Islamic State Iraq will require a long-term investment. Who will be the main beneficiaries of that military support, specifically in terms of weapons and training, is still being debated in Baghdad and Washington, he added.
The Iraqi vice president’s remarks Tuesday run counter to reports that his delegation specifically called for U.S. forces to put their weight behind the Sunni militias in Iraq. In an interview with The Associated Press, he said Washingtonshould undertake a military adviser program akin to the “Sunni Awakening” effort during the Iraq War under President George W. Bush.
The program, in which American commanders targeted millions of dollars in discretionary funds to buy the support of Sunni militias to battle the Shia insurgency, is considered one of the major turning points of the Iraq war.
Originally published on the Washington times.