- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party finished first in Iraq’s national elections last year, is calling the U.S. military an “invader,” raising fresh concerns that the Pentagon may face another demand to leave the country before the military mission against Islamic State and other jihadi groups is complete.

With Mr. al-Sadr scrambling to form a new government following his political bloc’s surprise recent victory in parliamentary elections, his words have carried increased weight about a nationalist backlash about the U.S. presence in Iraq.

A fierce critic of the U.S.-installed government after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Mr. al-Sadr declared Tuesday that “the U.S. is an invader country,” and that his newly empowered Sairoon political alliance will “not allow [the U.S.] to interfere at all.”

The Turkish news agency Anadolu, which first reported the statement, said Mr. al-Sadr was responding to queries about his efforts to form a new government. But some read it as a sign the cleric is bent on wielding his power to deny a future U.S. military role in Iraq following the defeat of the Islamic State terror group there.

Shiite Muslim militias loyal to Mr. al-Sadr waged a bloody campaign against U.S. forces in Iraq prior to their 2011 withdrawal from the nation. It’s a factor that has Washington on edge over the cleric’s intentions regarding the several thousand of American troops who returned to Iraq in recent years to battle the Islamic State.

The cleric has a history of calling for the removal of the Americans, reportedly even threatening during the recent parliamentary campaign that such troops could become the target of Shiite paramilitary groups if they stay in Iraq for too long.

While notably less specific, Mr. al-Sadr’s latest proclamation comes at a delicate moment at the Pentagon. U.S. officials are working behind the scenes on a plan to get NATO allies to play a more significant, boots-on-the-ground role in maintaining security in Iraq as the current, U.S.-led anti-Islamic State mission evolves into a longer-term stabilization campaign.

Pentagon sources have told The Washington Times that Defense Secretary James N. Mattis intends to present the plan at a NATO meeting in Brussels next month, calling for a larger number of troops from the alliance to support the new mission. The current counter-Islamic State force in Iraq and Syria consists of about 9,000 troops, 5,000 of whom are American.

Regional observers argue the full American withdrawal in 2011 left Iraqi forces unprepared for what became an onslaught by the Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim extremist group, which seized swaths of territory in 2014, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

While Islamic State strongholds have since been largely ousted by U.S., Iraqi and other forces, the outgoing government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has supported the notion of a continued U.S. presence to protect against the prospect of the group’s resurgence.

But Mr. Sadr’s surprise parliamentary victory — and Mr. al-Abadi’s disappointing third-place finish — have raised doubts around the al-Abadi government’s ability to secure the necessary political agreements to allow this U.S. forces to remain.

Mr. al-Sadr did not run as a candidate and has ruled himself out as potential prime minister. But he is likely to wield great influence if his party is the lead member of a governing coalition.

Mr. al-Sadr’s bloc captured more than 50 of the 329 seats in parliament, the largest number of any other political bloc. The Iran-backed Fatah alliance came in second, while Mr. Abadi’s Victory Alliance was third, giving the Sadrists first crack at putting together a new government.

There are, meanwhile, uncertainties over Mr. al-Sadr’s relationship with Iran — Iraq’s neighbor and the Mideast’s most powerful Shiite nation. The cleric has rejected charges he would be a pawn of Tehran, but concerns remain that his desire for an expanding power base could lead to closer ties to Iran.

Mr. al-Sadr embraced a more conciliatory tone toward Iran in his statement Tuesday, saying only that “Iran is a neighboring country that fears for its interest and we hope it will not interfere in Iraqi affairs.”

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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