Common Ground

09.18.14 3:28 AM ET

Iran Warns Obama to Stay Out of Iraq

So much for an alliance of convenience. This week some of the Iraqi militias fighting ISIS issued a warning to President Obama not to send in ground forces.

Finally there is something President Obama and the Shiite extremists can agree on: no ground forces in Iraq.

Three top Iraq Shiite militias warned the United States this week not to reoccupy the country—and leading the charge was Muqtada al-Sadr. The firebrand cleric, who was the face of the anti-American Shiite insurgency of the last decade, said in a statement Monday: “As we made you taste the heat of our fire and [power] in the past, we will make you taste the scourge of your decision," according to a translation from the Institute for the Study of War. Two other Shiite militias, Asai’b Ahl al-Haq and Katai’b Hizballah, followed Sadr’s Mahdi Army and issued a statement Monday telling the United States to stay out of Iraq.

The groups, which receive considerable backing from Iran, fought bitterly with U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq in the last decade, when U.S. forces were battling to build up an Iraqi government after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Still, these same militias also have fought on the ground against ISIS positions, in some cases retaking ISIS-controlled territory with the indirect help of American airpower. That was the case earlier this month, when Asai’b al-Haq took back Amerli following a U.S. air campaign.

But this week Iran’s supreme leader publicly rejected the Obama administration’s entreaties to cooperate in the fight against ISIS, though Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would still be interested in discussing possible cooperation against ISIS in the future.

Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday evening that Iran provides the militias with help organizing, some weapons, and military advisers. He also stressed they were disorganized.

Nonetheless, Zarif said that any U.S. ground presence in Iraq would likely spur opposition. “The problem also when it comes to the United States is that the presence of foreign forces in any setting creates domestic opposition and domestic resentment,” he said. “And it is best, whether we support this or not—and we certainly do not support anybody engaging in anything that would complicate the situation—is to allow the Iraqis to fight this.”

On Thursday, James Mattis, the retired four-star Marine Corps general who led U.S. Central Command between 2010 and 2013, urged against cooperation with Iran against ISIS at a hearing before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “The enemy of my enemy is still my enemy,” Mattis said of Iran’s role in the new war against ISIS. 

Asked about the recent warnings from the Iraqi Shiite militias, a senior U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast: “We aren’t blind to the inimical interests that some of these groups may espouse.” The official added, “There is no intent to introduce American troops into a combat role in Iraq, and our focus remains squarely on helping Iraqi forces combat ISIL,” using the acronym the Obama administration prefers for ISIS.

But it’s not yet clear whether more U.S. ground forces will be fighting in Iraq in the months to come. On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that he expects a total of 1,600 U.S. personnel to be sent to Iraq in the coming weeks. At the same hearing, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said he may recommend at a future date that Obama use some of those forces in combat to assist Iraqi forces in a mission such as retaking Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which fell to ISIS in June.

Kimberly Kagan, the president of the Institute for the Study of War, said the United States first must deal with the Iranian military advisers who are already embedded with Iraqi military battalions.

“We do have to wrestle with the fact that the army already has them on the ground,” she said. “It’s a threat to us if we put troops on the ground. The withdrawal of these Iranian advisers has to be a precondition for sending our boots on the ground.”

The Daily Beast reported earlier this month that the United States and Iran are not formally communicating with each other in Iraq, though Iraqi leaders have passed messages between the two sides.