U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has arrived in an unannounced visit to Iraq after the Shi'ite-led government dismissed his call for Iranian-backed militia fighters who helped Baghdad defeat Islamic State (IS) extremists to "go home."
Tillerson arrived in Baghdad late on October 23 for talks with senior officials about Iran, the Kurdish independence movement, and rebuilding efforts after the defeat of the IS group in major Iraqi towns and cities.
He is meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and is also due to hold talks with Iraqi President Fuad Masum, a Kurd, in an apparent reaffirmation of U.S. support for a unified Iraq after the Kurdish independence referendum held last month in northern Iraq.
Tillerson has been making the Trump administration's case for an Arab alliance to oppose Iran's activity in the Middle East. He attended the inaugural meeting of the Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Council on October 22 and urged the two longtime rivals to set aside past differences.
Speaking on October 22 after a meeting with Saudi Arabia's King Salman and Abadi, Tillerson said it was time for Iranian military advisers and fighters “to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control."
"Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against [IS] is coming to a close, those militias need to go home," Tillerson said. "The foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control."
A senior U.S. official said Tillerson's remarks referred to militia fighters known as the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Quds Force, the foreign arm of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
But Iraq's cabinet on October 23 insisted that the paramilitary forces that helped it to defeat IS were fully Iraqi.
"The fighters of the Hashid [al-Shaabi paramilitary units] are Iraqis who are concerned for their country and have sacrificed for its defense and for its people," it said in a statement, quoting a source close to Abadi.
The cabinet added that "nobody has the right to interfere in Iraqi affairs."
Tillerson's Persian Gulf trip came amid efforts by President Donald Trump's administration to isolate and contain Iran in the Middle East and beyond.
It included a visit to the inaugural Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council, led by Abadi and King Salman, which has been pushed by the United States as a means to counter Iran's influence in Iraq.
In Tehran on October 23, Iranian President Hassan Rohani said Iran's position in the Middle East had never been stronger.
"In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, northern Africa, in the Persian Gulf region -- where can action be taken without Iran?" Rohani said during a speech that was broadcast by Iranian state television.
Iranian-backed militias have played key roles in the U.S.-supported Iraqi government's efforts to drive IS fighters from Iraq.
After pushing the extremists out of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul earlier this year, Iraqi government troops and allied, Iranian-backed militia are mopping up remnants of the IS extremist group from its last remaining pockets of territory in the country.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif assailed Tillerson's comments in a Twitter post.
"Exactly what country is it that Iraqis who rose up to defend their homes against ISIS return to?" Zarif said in a tweet, using an alternative name for IS.
"If it wasn't for the sacrifices of the Islamic Republic of Iran, [Islamic State] would have installed its government in Damascus, Baghdad, and [the Iraqi Kurdistan capital] Arbil by now," Zarif said.
Trump said on October 22 that he does not object to France and Germany continuing to trade with Iran, despite Trump’s refusal to certify Iran’s compliance with a landmark 2015 nuclear deal.
"I told them just keep making money," Trump said. "Don't worry. You just keep making money."
Tillerson, however, said the United States is hoping European companies and countries "will join the U.S. as we put in place a sanction structure."
"Those who conduct business with Iranian Revolutionary Guards, any of their entities -- European companies or other companies around the globe -- really do so at great risk," Tillerson said.
Tillerson flew into Iraq from Qatar. Earlier on October 23, he made a surprise visit to Afghanistan. Neither trip was announced publicly.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP