Tillerson arrives in Iraq after rebuke from Baghdad over paramilitaries

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens to a reporter's question alongside Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani during a media availability after their meeting, in Doha, Qatar October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alex Brandon/Pool

By Maher Chmaytelli

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived on Monday in Iraq, hours after the government rebuked him for calling on it to send home Iranian-backed paramilitary units that helped defeat Islamic State and capture the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk.

Iraq is one of the few countries allied closely to both the United States and Iran, and Tillerson’s effort to drive a wedge between Baghdad and Tehran appeared to have backfired, drawing a sharp statement from Prime Minister Haidar Abadi’s office.

Tillerson visited Iraq a day after a rare joint meeting with Abadi and Saudi Arabia’s king Salman in the kingdom’s capital Riyadh.

After that meeting he called on Iraq to halt the work of the Tehran-backed paramilitary units, which have operated alongside government troops in battles against Islamic State and, since last week, in a lightning advance that seized the oil city of Kirkuk from Kurdish security forces.

Iraqi forces are deploying tanks and artillery just south of a Kurdish-operated oil pipeline that crosses into Turkey, a Kurdish security official said, the latest in a series of Iranian-backed operations against the Kurds.

“Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” Tillerson said on Sunday in Saudi Arabia.

Abadi’s office responded sharply.

“No party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters,” a statement from his office read. It did not cite the prime minister himself but a “source” close to him. It referred to the mainly Shi’ite paramilitaries, known as “Popular Mobilization”, as “patriots”.



The international battle against Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq since 2014 saw the United States and Iran effectively fighting on the same side, with both supporting the Iraqi government against the militants.

Washington has 5,000 troops in Iraq, and provided air support, training and weapons to Iraqi government forces, even as Iran armed, trained and advised Shi’ite paramilitaries which often fought alongside the army.

The latest twist in the Iraq conflict, pitting the central government against the Kurds, is trickier for U.S. policymakers. Washington still supports the central government but has also been allied to the Kurds for decades.

Iran is the pre-eminent Shi’ite power in the Middle East. Shi’ites, including Abadi, are the majority in Iraq which also has large Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities.

Iran exhibited its sway over Baghdad’s policies during tensions over a referendum last month in which the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region voted to secede from Iraq against Baghdad’s wishes, Kurdish officials say.

Baghdad responded to the vote by seizing the oil city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds see as the heart of any future homeland.

Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of foreign operations for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, repeatedly warned Kurdish leaders to withdraw from Kirkuk or face an onslaught by Iraqi forces and allied Iranian-backed fighters, Kurdish officials briefed on the meetings said.

Iraq’s Sunni neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, share Washington’s concerns over Iran’s influence in Iraq.



Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed Tillerson’s remarks. The paramilitaries could not go home because “they are at home” already, he was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.

Abadi has asserted his authority with the defeat of Islamic State in Mosul and the Iraqi army’s sweep through Kirkuk and other areas which were held by the Kurds.

The buildup at the Kurdish oil export pipeline is taking place northwest of Mosul, an official from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) security council said.

The loss of Kirkuk dealt a major blow to the Kurds, who had been steadily building an autonomous region in northern Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, who oppressed them for decades.

“We are concerned about continued military build-up of Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces towards the Kurdistan Region,” said the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) in a statement.

Elections for Iraq’s Kurdistan region’s presidency and parliament set for Nov. 1 will be delayed because political parties failed to present candidates, the head of the electoral commission Hendrean Mohammed told Reuters.

Parties have been unable to focus on the elections because

of turmoil that followed the referendum, a Kurdish lawmaker said on condition of anonymity.


(additional reporting by Jon Landay; writing by Michael Georgy; editing by Peter Graff)


Exclusive: Jailed Islamic State suspects recall path to jihad in Iraq

Former bakery worker Walid Ismail speaks during an interview with Reuters in a Kurdish security compound in the city of Erbil, Iraq

By Michael Georgy

ERBIL (Reuters) – When Kurdish forces began firing rockets at a suspected Islamic State hideout in northern Iraq, one of those inside, former bakery worker Walid Ismail, said he tried to persuade the others to surrender.

Some wanted to hold hand grenades to their throats and pull the pins. In the end, a Tunisian militant among them detonated a suicide bomb, hoping to wipe out their attackers.

Instead he killed five of the group and injured the rest. Ismail said the others were then killed by the Kurds and he only made it out by shouting that he had no bombs.

An online video shows him looking terrified as he emerges from the house in the town of Bashiqa near Mosul with an injured hand, to be arrested by Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

Today, the 20-year-old sits with his ankles shackled in a security compound in the city of Erbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, which is fighting alongside Baghdad to drive Islamic State from its stronghold in Mosul and nearby towns.

Islamic State suspects are rarely allowed to speak to media, but the Kurdistan Regional Security Council allowed Reuters to interview Ismail and another prisoner in the presence of an official.

They described how Islamic State transformed them from ordinary Mosul citizens into jihadists through promises and threats and said unjust treatment of their Sunni community by the Shi’ite-led government and armed forces played a major role.

Their accounts, which could not be verified, show how vital it will be to manage sectarian tensions after any victory over Islamic State to avoid a repeat of what has been the second wave of Sunni militants since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003.

Ismail said Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had wide appeal when he walked into a Mosul mosque in broad daylight two years ago, and declared large parts of Iraq and Syria a caliphate, six years after al Qaeda was driven underground.

“I believed him,” he said, soft-spoken and wearing a gray track suit. “We loved them because they relieved us of the oppression of the Shi’ites.”


Like other members of Iraq’s Sunni minority, Ismail alleged many innocent Sunnis had been branded terrorists by the army, which put up little resistance when about 800 Islamic State fighters swept into northern Iraq in pickup trucks in 2014.

“They said ‘whoever goes to the mosque is safe’,” They said ‘we are your Muslim Brothers. We aim to rid you of the Shi’ites and no one will oppress you’,” said Ismail.

“We will give you food and money. Whatever you want.”

In a separate interview, another prisoner suspected of fighting for Islamic State, Hazem Saleh, seethed when he recalled how the Iraqi army had treated his three brothers in the months before Islamic State appeared on the scene.

“They were laborers. They detained them for about a month and a half. They beat them. They hung them upside down. They dislocated their shoulders,” said the former Mosul blacksmith.

The Iraqi military and government, now under new leadership, deny such allegations and say they only went after terrorists.

Ismail’s account of the Tunisian’s role tallies with what Kurdish and Iraqi officials say is the tendency of foreign fighters to fully embrace Islamic State’s ruthless tactics and hardline ideology viewing opponents as infidels deserving death.


Some of the Iraqis, on the other hand, are described as criminal gangs which make money through kidnappings for ransom. Others sign up for practical reasons.

Ismail said he was struggling to support six younger siblings when Islamic State disabled the bakery that employed him by cutting off gas supplies, leaving him with few options.

“Daesh gave me 500,000 dinars ($400) per month to hold a machine gun and stand guard on a street,” he said, using a derogatory Arabic acronym to describe Islamic State.

Like Ismail, Saleh said Islamic State applied financial pressure, forcing his shop to pay heavy taxes and then offering a handsome salary to entice him to take up the cause.

“I have seven children, the youngest is two. They need to live,” he said. “There was a lack of work and poverty so most people joined because of that.”

For him, there was something else, he said. “They threatened to make my 14-year-old son wage holy war in order to pressure me … So I said goodbye to my family and left.”

Initiation was simple. Ismail was handed a uniform — an outfit similar to ones worn by the Taliban in Afghanistan — and told to watch for any suspicious activities.

He said Islamic State was highly secretive and obsessed with protecting its emirs, or leaders, especially from capture or air strikes. “We did not know who the leader of our army was. They would never allow us near strategic areas,” he said.

There did not seem to be any merit system. “They would just come along and say ‘you are an emir and you won’t be.”

He said eventually he became disillusioned but did not dare criticize. That would mean jail, or maybe far worse.

“You can’t speak out,” he said, citing a time when fighters caught his father violating an Islamic State ban on smoking and warned him that next time he would be whipped.

Saleh, who also surrendered in Bashiqa, appeared for the interview in military fatigues and with a hood over his head initially.

He said he inspected vehicles at Islamic State checkpoints, where any Iraqi soldiers or Kurdish fighters were arrested and anyone not living in the area was viewed with suspicion.

Later he said he worked preparing rice, meat and lentil meals for the fighters, who had one cook for each group of 12.

He said he had received 25 days of four-hourly training on how to handle an AK-47 assault rifle, but did not fight for Islamic State or condone violence.

Ismail, reflecting on his decision to join the group, was at a loss for words, and close to tears. He also went out of his way to praise his Kurdish captors, as the official looked on.

He said he lost touch with his family as he moved from Mosul to the town of Bashiqa, where he ended up in encircled by Kurds in that house, waiting for Islamic State emirs to deliver on promises to send reinforcements that never came.

The two men now face an uncertain future. With the battle for Mosul still going on, the security compound is home for people the Kurds in charge of the area consider a major threat.

If sufficient evidence is gathered, the men are likely to face trial.

Asked what he would like to tell his relatives, Ismail said: “Please be patient. If God is willing I will return.”

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)