Iran-backed militias offer truce for US troop withdrawal

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi militias backed by Iran have agreed to temporarily halt attacks targeting the American presence in Iraq on the condition that US-led coalition troops withdraw from the country in line with a parliamentary resolution, three of the militia officials said Sunday.

The militia officials spoke to The Associated Press just hours after a roadside bomb targeted a convoy transporting equipment for the US-led coalition on a highway south of Baghdad, damaging one vehicle, an Iraqi army statement said. The attack prompted questions over whether such a truce could hold across all militia factions.

Roadside bombs and especially rocket attacks targeting the US embassy — located inside the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad — have become a frequent occurrence and have strained ties between Baghdad and Washington.

The militia factions offered a truce and will refrain from targeting the US in Iraq, including the US embassy, on the condition that American military withdraw within an “acceptable time-frame,” said Mohammed Mohie, a spokesman for the powerful Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah.

“If it does not withdraw, the resistance factions will resume their military activities with all the capabilities available to them,” he said.

Two other factions from different Iran-backed groups echoed Mohie’s comments, without specifying a length of the truce, and said it was open-ended. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give statements.

Iraqi lawmakers vote in January on a non-binding resolution to oust US-led coalition troops in the country, following a Washington-directed drone strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis outside Baghdad’s international airport.

The militia factions’ comments indicate some deescalation following weeks of tensions. The Trump administration has warned Iraq’s leadership that it would close the US embassy in Baghdad if the militia groups were not contained. American officials have said that while it was a serious threat, it was not an imminent ultimatum. In September, the Trump administration shortened a crucial sanctions waiver required for Iraq to import Iranian energy.

The US has blamed Iran-backed militia groups, in particular Kataib Hezbollah, for perpetrating attacks on the American presence in Iraq.

Illustrative: An Iraqi soldier stands guard in front of smoke rising from a fire set by pro-Iranian militiamen and their supporters in the US embassy compound , in Baghdad, Iraq, January 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

On Saturday, the Coordinating Body of the Iraqi Resistance — believed to include an array of Iran-backed militia groups such as Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat al-Nujaba — issued a statement announcing “the cessation of its operations against foreign, especially American forces and interests in Iraq.”

Mohie, the militia spokesman, said: “The truce came after major personalities intervened and mediated in order to persuade these factions to stop the bombing operations until the end of the American election. … These were messages that these personalities conveyed.”

Last week, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN envoy to Iraq, held a meeting with Abu Fadak, the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces and a commander of the Kataib Hezbollah. The PMF is a state-sanctioned institution encompassing an array of militia groups, some of which are Iran-backed.

The militias’ announced truce coincides with an apparent shift in US rhetoric, after Iraqi officials said any US embassy closure would isolate Iraq from the world.

Following a call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last Saturday, Iraqi Finance Minister Fuad Hussein referred to the threat as an “initial decision,” and that both sides had discussed “various future possibilities” for diplomatic missions inside the Green Zone.

Playing down embassy closure threats that same day, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said it was not an official threat from the US, but an “annoyance,” in remarks to state television.

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