WASHINGTON: The US military’s relationship with Iraq’s security forces will not be impacted by the election win of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose followers fought US troops in past years, a top general said Friday.
General Joe Votel, who heads the US military’s Central Command, which oversees forces in the Middle East, told AFP he had confidence in the positive dynamic built up while the Iraqis fought the Islamic State jihadist group for three years.
“They are very focused on continuing to provide protection for their people and increasing the capabilities and professionalism of their force, so I think we have a very good relationship and their military — much like our military — is very apolitical,” Votel said in a phone interview.
Sadr’s gains have called into question the presence of US forces in Iraq, where more than 5,000 troops are indefinitely deployed to work with Iraqi counterparts and help prevent a resurgence of IS.
Votel said he did not want to wade into Iraq’s politics, but noted that he supported the electoral process.
“As the Iraqi parliament and various parties begin to form their government, we will do everything we can to continue to be the good supporting partner that we are,” Votel said.
“But this of course is a decision by the people of Iraq, not by me.”
Sadr and his militia played central roles in the wave of sectarian bloodshed that peaked in 2006-2007, but he eventually froze the militia’s activities in a move the US credited with sharply reducing violence.
While his family of religious scholars historically has close ties with the Islamic revolutionaries in Iran and he spent years living there, Sadr opposes the heavy influence that Tehran exercises over Iraq.
President Donald Trump last week pulled America out of the Iran nuclear deal, prompting uncertainty about how Iran’s military might react in the region.
Votel said that so far, he had seen no changes, including with Tehran-backed militias in Iraq.
“We are certainly playing very close attention to the possible reaction from Iran or any of its proxy elements that might be operating in the area, but we have not yet seen any kind of response,” he said.