(Adds Iranian-backed group tells US to get ready to leave Iraq)
By Jonathan Landay and Maher Chmaytelli
BAGHDAD, Oct 23 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex
Tillerson urged the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan region on
Monday to resolve their conflict over Kurdish self-determination
and disputed territories through dialogue.
Tillerson laid out his position at the start of a meeting in
Baghdad with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who in turn
defended the role of an Iraqi paramilitary force backed by Iran
against criticism the secretary of state made on Sunday.
"We are concerned and a bit sad," Tillerson said in his
opening remarks. "We have friends in Baghdad and friends in
Erbil and we encourage all parties to enter into discussion ...
and all differences can be addressed," he said, referring to the
Iraqi and Kurdistan region capitals.
The U.S. administration sided with Abadi in rejecting the
validity of the referendum held last month in the Kurdish
region, which produced an overwhelming yes for Kurdish
The administration also called on the two sides to avoid
further escalation, after Abadi retaliated against the vote by
isolating the Kurdistan region and ordering his troops to seize
the oil city of Kirkuk from Kurdish fighters.
"We don’t want to enter into any battle against any Iraqi
component," Abadi said. "When we entered Kirkuk we sent a clear
message that the citizens of Kirkuk are important to us."
It was Tillerson's second meeting with Abadi in as many
days. After Sunday's meeting, alongside Saudi Arabia's King
Salman, Tillerson said it was time for Iranian-backed militias
that had helped Baghdad defeat Islamic State to "go home"
Abadi told Tillerson the paramilitary force called Popular
Mobilisation "is part of the Iraqi institutions," rejecting
accusations that it is acting as Iran's proxies.
"Popular Mobilisation fighters should be encouraged because
they will be the hope of country and the region," he said.
A few hours earlier, Abadi's office published a statement
rejecting Tillerson's comments. "No party has the right to
interfere in Iraqi matters," it said.
Washington, which also backed Baghdad against Islamic State,
is concerned Iran will use its increased presence in Iraq, and
in Syria where it supports President Bashar al-Assad, to expand
its influence in the region.
Shi'ite Muslim Iran's influence in Iraq, where the
population is also predominantly Shi'ite, has grown since the
U.S. invasion of 2003 that overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein, a
Iraq's Sunni Muslim neighbours, including Saudi Arabia,
share Washington's concern about rising Iranian influence.
Tehran has trained and armed the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation
forces that have fought, often alongside Iraqi government units,
against Islamic State, which was effectively defeated in July
when a U.S.-backed offensive captured its stronghold, Mosul.
The United States has over 5,000 troops deployed in Iraq and
provided critical air and ground support in the offensive on
Islamic State. It is also the main backer of the Kurdish-led
Syrian coalition that captured the IS stronghold of Raqqa
earlier this month.
Of the closest groups to Iran within Popular Mobilisation,
Asaib Ahl al-Haq, reacted to Tillerson's comment by saying it
would be the Americans who will be forced to leave Iraq.
"Your forces should get ready to get out of our country once
the excuse of Daesh's presence is over," said Asaib's leader,
Sheikh Qais al-Khazali, according to the group's TV channel,
(Editing by Larry King)
First Published: 2017-10-23 19:51:36
Updated 2017-10-23 22:44:21
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