BAGHDAD (Reuters) – An array of Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups have suspended rocket attacks on U.S. forces on condition that Iraq’s government present a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, one of the groups said on Sunday.
A spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah, one of the most powerful Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq, said the groups were presenting no set deadline, but that if U.S. troops “insisted on staying” they would unleash much more violent attacks.
Washington, which is slowly reducing its 5,000 troops in Iraq, threatened last month to shut its embassy unless the Iraqi government reins in Iran-aligned militias that have attacked U.S. interests with rockets and roadside bombs.
The U.S. warning caused alarm in Iraq, where it was seen as a step towards air strikes, potentially turning Iraq into a battleground in a proxy war between the United States and Iran. A broad array of politicians called on the militia to stop provoking the Americans.
“The factions have presented a conditional ceasefire,” Kataib Hezbollah spokesman Mohammed Mohi told Reuters. “It includes all factions of the (anti-U.S.) resistance, including those who have been targeting U.S. forces.”
On Saturday, militia groups calling themselves the “Iraqi Resistance Coordination Commission” published a statement suggesting they would suspend attacks in return for a clear plan for U.S. troops to leave. Mohi did not specify which groups had drafted the statement.
He said the Iraqi government must implement a parliamentary resolution in January calling for foreign troops to withdraw.
Iraq is one of the few countries with close ties to both the United States and Iran, both of which provided military support to help defeat Islamic State fighters, who were beaten back in a three-year war after seizing a third of Iraq in 2014.
Iraqis have long feared their country could become a proxy battleground, especially since Washington killed Tehran’s military mastermind Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike at Baghdad airport in January.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi leader of pro-Iran militias, was also killed. Factions that Soleimani and Muhandis commanded, including Kataib Hezbollah, swore to avenge them.
But pro-Iran militias have faced a popular backlash from Iraqis who accuse them of putting the country’s security at risk by attacking the Americans.
Mohi said there was no deadline for the government to expel foreign troops, but “if America insists on staying and doesn’t respect the parliament’s decision then the factions will use all the weapons at their disposal”.
He said rockets fired at U.S. forces and diplomatic compounds were a message, and worse attacks could follow.
U.S. officials blame Kataib Hezbollah for dozens of rocket attacks against U.S. installations in Iraq.
Kataib Hezbollah denies involvement, and some attacks have been claimed by smaller, little-known militias, though Iraqi officials believe these may be fronts for bigger groups.
A roadside blast hit a convoy in southern Iraq on Sunday delivering equipment to the U.S.-led military coalition in the country, damaging a tyre but causing no casualties, the military said. There was no claim of responsibility.
(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Ahmed Rasheed, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Peter Graff)