By SAM DAGHER
The Wall Street Journal, Baghdad, 22 Nov 2011- Weeks before the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the commander of American forces here urged the Iraqi government to keep fighting extremists, especially the Iran-backed militias he said threaten to form a state within a state.
The commander, Gen. Lloyd Austin, compared the threat to Hezbollah, the Shiite military and political group in Lebanon that has strong ties to Iran and Syria and that the U.S. deems a terrorist group.
As if to underline the threat Gen. Austin described to reporters Monday, new anti-American billboards are appearing in central Baghdad, less than two miles from the Green Zone, home to the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy compound.
“No, no America; No, no falsehood,” reads the caption on one billboard depicting Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr trampling the U.S. flag.
Mr. Sadr, who controls a militia as well as a political movement that forms part of the current Iraqi government, was one of the most vociferous opponents to U.S. efforts this year to keep as many as 5,000 military personnel in Iraq beyond Dec. 31 to advise and train Iraqi forces.
Those U.S. efforts reached a dead end last month when the Iraqi government balked at granting immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts to U.S. trainers. President Barack Obama then announced that the U.S. would withdraw all troops from Iraq by year’s end.
Many U.S. officials had hoped that a continued military presence could provide a check on Iran’s growing presence and prevent disputes like the continuing ethnic discord over land and oil in Iraq’s north involving Kurds, Arabs and other groups from flaring up into civil war.
Gen. Austin expressed hope that Baghdad and Washington could still find a way to keep a U.S. military training presence, particularly given the U.S. view that Iraqi forces are unable to conduct sustained, coordinated warfare.
“Iraq now has the opportunity to become a leader in the region if it chooses to stay on the right path,” said Gen. Austin, who will soon finish his third tour in Iraq. “First, I think they have to continue to apply pressure on the violent extremist networks.”
Gen. Austin said that while insurgents linked to al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s former ruling Baath Party remained a threat, especially in the north, the Iraqi government should be at least as concerned about the Shiite militias he said were trained, funded and equipped by Iran.
He named Mr. Sadr’s Katayeb al-Youm al-Maoud, Asaib Ahal al-Haq and Katayeb Hezbollah, which the U.S. has said is directly controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Gen. Austin said such groups were still being supplied with weapons from Iran even as U.S. soldiers depart, suggesting that they might be gearing up to fight their rivals in Iraq.
“These are elements that are really focused on creating a Lebanese Hezbollah kind of organization in this country: a government within a government,” he said. “As we leave, if these elements are left unchecked they will then eventually turn on the government.”
Gen. Austin also expressed concern over recent threats by Iran-backed militias to target the U.S. State Department-led mission—estimated at 16,000 and largely made up of civilian and security contractors—set to stay in Iraq after the troops leave.
“We would expect that the Iraqi security forces would do the necessary things to protect our diplomats and again we have every indication that they would do so,” Gen. Austin said.
In an interview Sunday, Hussein al-Assadi, a senior security adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said the government was looking for ways to allow 800 to 1,000 U.S. military trainers to return to Iraq next year.
He said the Iraqi government was currently considering special legislation that would address the issue of immunity for U.S. troops and that would be the focus of Mr. Maliki’s discussions with Mr. Obama during the Iraqi leader’s official state visit to Washington next month.
“We as army, police and security forces honestly prefer that the trainers be American because our weapons are American,” said Mr. Assadi, who is in charge of receiving bases being vacated by U.S. troops.
U.S. officials had previously stated that a small contingent of uniformed personnel would continue to serve in country within the Office of Security Cooperation Iraq which would report to the U.S. embassy.
Mr. Assadi’s comments suggest willingness by the Iraqi government to expand this presence.
Gen. Austin said he was unaware of this, while indicating that any fresh negotiations with the Iraqi side “won’t begin in earnest until we have honored the security agreement” to evacuate the existing U.S. troops.
There are now fewer than 20,000 U.S. military personnel left in Iraq occupying eight bases, according to Gen. Austin. At the height of the war in 2007, 171,000 U.S. troops were stationed there.
On Friday, U.S. troops left an air base in the north where a tense standoff took place last week between the Arab-dominated Iraqi Army and the predominantly Kurdish local police over who should be responsible for securing the facility located in the oil-rich and hotly contested city of Kirkuk.