- Associated Press - Monday, January 28, 2019

BAGHDAD (AP) - The leader of one of Iraq’s most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias which also fought pitched battles in neighboring Syria said Monday that he expects a vote by Iraq’s parliament calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country within the next few months.

Qais al-Khazali, head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, said there’s no longer a justification for thousands of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after IS has been defeated. He suggested American forces may eventually be driven out by force if they do not yield to the will of the Iraqi parliament and people.

He spoke with The Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview at his office in Baghdad. Al-Khizali said he is confident that more than half the new Iraqi parliament rejects the continued presence of American troops.

“I think more than half the members of parliament reject the presence of American military forces as a matter of principle,” he said.

“If the United States wants to impose its presence by force, and to ignore the Iraqi constitution and parliament, Iraq can treat it the same way and drive it out by force, this is for sure. But the first phase is political,” al-Khazali said.

U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq as part of the coalition against the Islamic State group. American forces withdrew in 2011 after invading in 2003 when they toppled dictator Saddam Hussein but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the of the country’s then pro-US government to help fight the extremist group.

Now, after defeating IS militants in their last urban bastions last year, curbing foreign influence in Iraqi affairs has become a hot-button political issue and Iraqi politicians and militia leaders are increasingly speaking out against the continued presence of U.S. forces on Iraqi soil.

A visit by President Donald Trump with U.S. troops at an air base in Iraq late last month particularly infuriated Iraqi politicians who demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Trump has said he had no plans to withdraw the 5,200 troops in the country and that Iraq could be used could be used for U.S. air strikes inside Syria after the U.S. withdraws its troops from that country.

Al-Khizali said he was “certain and confident” there will be an Iraqi parliament vote calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. He said there was absolutely no need for troops and special forces anymore but said a small contingent of advisers and trainers could stay on as determined by a joint committee that would specify their numbers and locations.

“Anything other than that will be considered an infringement on sovereignty that the Iraqi parliament, the Iraqi people and political factions including ours and we will not allow it,” he said.

Al-Khazali was jailed by British and U.S. forces from 2007 to 2010 for managing sections of the Shia insurgency against the U.S. occupation. His group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia fought key battles against IS in northern Iraq and have also fought in neighboring Syria’s civil war.

His group made significant gains in parliament elections that were held in May and he is now represented by a 15-member bloc in parliament.

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