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Petraeus: Iran-Backed Militias Bigger Threat than ISIS to American Interests in Iraq

Iranian-backed Shiite militias are the “most significant long term threat” to Iraq, according retired Gen. David Petraeus, in an interview published today in The Washington Post. Petraeus, who is back in Iraq for the first time since 2011, was interviewed by the Post’s Beirut correspondent, Liz Sly.

In response to a question about how to respond to the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to Iraq, Petraeus said that ISIS was not in fact the main threat facing Iraq.

Third, as I explained earlier, we need to recognize that the #1 long term threat to Iraq’s equilibrium — and the broader regional balance — is not the Islamic State, which I think is on the path to being defeated in Iraq and pushed out of its Iraqi sanctuary. The most significant long term threat is that posed by the Iranian-backed Shiite militias. If Daesh is driven from Iraq and the consequence is that Iranian-backed militias emerge as the most powerful force in the country — eclipsing the Iraqi Security Forces, much as Hezbollah does in Lebanon — that would be a very harmful outcome for Iraqi stability and sovereignty, not to mention our own national interests in the region.

In response to a later question, Petraeus expanded on his explanation of the Iranian threat.

Whatever the motivations, though, they underscore a very important reality: The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East. It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution. The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State. While the U.S. and Iran may have convergent interests in the defeat of Daesh, our interests generally diverge. The Iranian response to the open hand offered by the U.S. has not been encouraging.

Iranian power in the Middle East is thus a double problem. It is foremost problematic because it is deeply hostile to us and our friends. But it is also dangerous because, the more it is felt, the more it sets off reactions that are also harmful to our interests — Sunni radicalism and, if we aren’t careful, the prospect of nuclear proliferation as well.

Petraeus’s warning about Iran’s role in the sectarian violence echoes that of analysts Michael Pregent and Michael Weiss, who wrote last month in The Daily Beast that Iran was making it “impossible” to fight ISIS by exacerbating sectarian tensions in Iraq.

Last week ABC reported on photographs and videos showing atrocities committed by the Shiite militias. Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch documented revenge attacks carried out by the militias against Sunni villages, after the Iraqi army, backed by the militias, broke the ISIS siege of the Iraqi town of Amerli.

In his article I Saw the U.S. Hand Iraq over to the Iranians. Is the Whole Region Next?, which was published in the February 2015 issue of The Tower Magazine, Pregent made similar observations to Petraeus’s warning about Iraqi Shiite militias becoming like Hezbollah in Lebanon.

As a result, what was once rumored to be true is now out in the open: Shia militias are commanded by the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards-Quds Force. Shia militias that once targeted and killed U.S. and other coalition members now populate the ranks of Iraq’s paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units. Shia militias and their Iranian handlers are operating with impunity for the first time; not only against ISIS, but also against their Sunni enemies in general. As a result, Iran and its proxies now believe that the U.S. views them as a necessary evil on the battlefield and legitimate partners in the Iraqi government.

The United States has effectively enabled an Iranian takeover of Iraq. I know, because I was there and saw it with my own eyes.

This has given Iran and its Shia proxies enormous influence over Iraqi politics. Recent statements from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, for example, promise a more inclusive government, endorsing more Sunni involvement in government ministries and Iraqi security forces. To accomplish this, however, al-Abadi must get the approval of the Shia political parties, which means he needs to get the approval of Iran.

In effect, then, Iran now has veto power over Iraqi government policies.

[Photo: ABC News / YouTube ]