Iraqi leader caught be­tween al­lies

While seek­ing mil­i­tary aid in U.S., Haider Abadi has to de­fend his ties to Iran.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Brian Bennett brian.bennett@la­times.com Twit­ter: @ByBri­anBen­nett Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Nabih Bu­los in Am­man, Jor­dan, con­trib­uted to this re­port.

WASH­ING­TON — Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider Abadi found him­self caught be­tween his gov­ern­ment’s two most im­por­tant al­lies — the United States and Iran — dur­ing his four-day visit to Wash­ing­ton.

Abadi’s trip was in­tended to shore up U.S. mil­i­tary sup­port for the battle against Is­lamic State. He wants to speed up de­liv­ery of U.S. fighter jets, small drone air­craft and heavy weapons, and bring home fi­nan­cial aid to help rebuild Tikrit and other cities dev­as­tated in the con­flict.

But Abadi re­peat­edly was asked about the role of dozens of Ira­nian mil­i­tary ad­vi­sors on the front lines, in­clud­ing a se­nior com­man­der who helped di­rect lethal at­tacks on Amer­i­can troops dur­ing the U.S. oc­cu­pa­tion in Iraq.

Speak­ing Thurs­day at a Wash­ing­ton think tank, Abadi said he did not ap­prove of widely cir­cu­lated pho­tos that showed Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, com­man­der of the Quds Force, an elite unit in Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard, sup­pos­edly drink­ing tea out­side Tikrit at the start of a re­cent of­fen­sive.

“Cer­tainly, it is a bad idea” for Ira­nian of­fi­cers to ap­pear to be com­mand­ing troops in Iraq, Abadi said. “We don’t ac­cept it.”

Af­ter Iraqi se­cu­rity forces and Shi­ite Mus­lim vol­un­teer mili­tias pushed the mil­i­tants out of Tikrit, on­line pho­tos showed Persian graf­fiti on the city’s walls along with pho­to­graphs of Iran’s supreme leader, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei.

Abadi said that the dis­plays prob­a­bly were in­tended to goad the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, which is con­duct­ing airstrikes against Is­lamic State po­si­tions but has not sent ground troops, and that they did not re­flect Ira­nian con­trol over Iraqi forces.

He ex­pressed frus­tra­tion, say­ing, “I’ve been talk­ing to the Ira­ni­ans about this.” He spoke at the non­par­ti­san Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

Mil­i­tary as­sis­tance from Iran must be chan­neled through the cen­tral gov­ern­ment, he said.

Iran has played an in­creas­ing role in neigh­bor­ing Iraq since the U.S.-led in­va­sion in 2003 ousted Sad­dam Hus­sein, a secular strongman who had led a dis­as­trous war against Iran in the 1980s. The U.S. con­sid­ers Iran a ma­lign force that has stoked sec­tar­ian ten­sion in Iraq be­tween mi­nor­ity Sunni Mus­lims who largely ben­e­fited from Hus­sein’s rule and the coun­try’s Shi­ite ma­jor­ity.

Yet the U.S. and Iran are tacit al­lies in Iraq be­cause they are both back­ing Bagh­dad’s at­tempts to oust Is­lamic State. Wash­ing­ton and Tehran in­sist they don’t have and don’t want any for­mal co­op­er­a­tion.

Hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions say the Iran-backed Shi­ite mili­tias have been re­spon­si­ble for reprisal killings and de­struc­tion of Sunni homes in Tikrit and other towns wrested from Is­lamic State con­trol.

The mili­tias so far ap­pear to have played a limited role in the battle for Ra­madi, the mostly Sunni cap­i­tal of An­bar prov­ince, where Is­lamic State seized out­ly­ing ar­eas Wed­nes­day and bat­tled gov­ern­ment forces for con­trol of the city Thurs­day. Many Sunni of­fi­cials are wary of the mili­tias’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in An­bar, es­pe­cially af­ter re­ports of sec­tar­ian-driven abuses in Tikrit.

“Any­one who wishes to fight for An­bar is wel­come to do so un­der the ban­ner of the Iraqi forces, which re­ports di­rectly to the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice,” said an of­fi­cial who re­quested anonymity be­cause he wasn’t au­tho­rized to speak with the me­dia. “But we are against bad prac­tices, re­gard­less of who com­mits th­ese acts, whether they are se­cu­rity forces or the Shi­ite mili­tias.”

Amid clashes in Ra­madi on Thurs­day, Iraqi of­fi­cials in­sisted the sit­u­a­tion was un­der con­trol. The city was “com­pletely in the hands of the se­cu­rity forces,” state news chan­nel Al Iraqiya quoted Gen. Saad Maan, spokesman for the Iraqi Joint Op­er­a­tions Com­mand, as say­ing.

For their part, An­bar of­fi­cials said the city was not yet fully se­cure, though Iraqi troops had con­trol of the main roads and gov­ern­ment com­pounds. Many res­i­dents fled from the city Thurs­day.

The U.S.-led coali­tion re­ported Thurs­day that it had car­ried out eight airstrikes in An­bar, in­clud­ing four near Ra­madi, about 60 miles west of Bagh­dad.

Abadi, in stark con­trast to his pre­de­ces­sor, Nouri Ma­liki, has pub­licly em­braced such U.S. as­sis­tance. Dur­ing his visit to Wash­ing­ton — his first as prime min­is­ter — he re­peat­edly thanked Amer­i­cans for their sac­ri­fice and sup­port in Iraq.

Abadi, who took of­fice in Septem­ber, is ea­ger to stay on good terms with Wash­ing­ton and Tehran. Iran has trained and armed the Shi­ite mili­tias that have so far been some of the most ef­fec­tive forces against Is­lamic State.

U.S. ad­vi­sors, mean­while, are help­ing cre­ate nine new Iraqi brigades that will be used in an at­tempt to re­cap­ture Mo­sul, which Is­lamic State has de­clared the cap­i­tal of its caliphate.

In ad­di­tion to seek­ing new heavy weapons and ar­mored per­son­nel car­ri­ers, Abadi wants the Pen­tagon to help shorten the time it takes to launch an airstrike af­ter in­tel­li­gence about a po­ten­tial tar­get has come in.

That could mean putting U.S. tar­geters closer to the front lines, a prospect that the White House has re­sisted.

As­so­ci­ated Press

TRIBAL FIGHTERS stand guard at a check­point in Ra­madi, cap­i­tal of Iraq’s An­bar prov­ince. Iraqi troops are fight­ing Is­lamic State there, and An­bar of­fi­cials are wary of Iran-backed Shi­ite mili­tias join­ing the battle.

Michael Reynolds Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

IRAQI PRE­MIER Haider Abadi, shown on Capitol Hill, has re­lied on the U.S. and Iran to fight mil­i­tants.

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