A bipartisan delegation of lawmakers is urging Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to take greater action to protect Kurds targeted by Iraqi government-backed security forces in recent weeks, a portion of whom are believed to be under Iranian control and using U.S. weaponry, according to a letter sent to al-Abadi and obtained by the Free Beacon.
The senators, led by Sens. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) and Tim Kaine (D., Va.), are pressuring al-Abadi to take greater action to protect Kurds, a reliable U.S. ally, who have been pushing controversial plans to pursue independence from Iraq.
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The independence referendum has stirred anger among the Iraqi government and appears to have sparked violent clashes earlier this month between Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga.
The violence comes amid growing concern in Congress that Iranian-backed militias fighting for the Iraqi government are illegally benefiting from U.S. training and arms equipment programs. At least a portion of the attacks on Kurdish forces appears to have been carried out with Iranian coordination.
The violence has become a diplomatic sore point as U.S. officials in the Trump administration continue to maintain that U.S. training, money, and weaponry is not going to Iranian-backed militia fighters, a claim that appears to contradict with direct evidence from the ground.
The senators are urging al-Abadi to take greater steps to remove Iranian-backed forces from disputed territories in Iraq, where they have been working to solidify the Islamic Republic's foothold on the country.
"The protection of Iraq's Kurdish citizens and minority communities is of the utmost importance to us," wrote the senators, which includes Johnson and Kaine, as well as Sens. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), James Risch (R., Idaho), Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), Cory Gardner (R., Colo.), John Barrasso (R., Wyo.), and Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.).
Iran's growing footprint in Iraq remains a top concern to the senators, who said that the presence of Iranian-backed militias—some of whom are believed to be cashing in on U.S. military train and equip programs in the country—is stirring violence in minority communities.
"Having invested considerable resources to equip and train the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], we are deeply troubled at the prospect of American arms being used against Iraqi Kurds or other minority communities," the senators wrote, expressing particular concern about Iran's role in these disputed areas.
"We strongly encourage you to remove non-local PMF units and to ensure that only the most disciplined elements of the ISF are tasked with security responsibilities in these sensitive areas," they wrote.
The protection of Kurdish minorities from Iranian factions is a priority for the United States, these lawmakers said.
"As tensions remain high, we would like to ensure that these communities are protected and to avoid any further violence that could spiral out of control," they wrote. "The presence of Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in disputed areas—especially the Nineveh Plains—has caused serious concerns, especially in minority communities."
The Iraqi prime minister should take greater steps to remove these Iranian-backed militias and other non-local fighting forces from disputed areas, according to the lawmakers.
"We urge you to have the ISF refrain from any unilateral or uncoordinated movements in the disputed areas, to accept a freeze of the referendum, to begin a dialogue with the KRG leadership to craft a constitutional solution to the current impasse, to establish joint mechanisms for security in disputed areas, and to address the broader political issues vital to Iraq’s long-term stability," they wrote.
The senators further said that the United States continues to support a "united, federal, and democratic Iraq," a position also supported by the Trump administration.
"We recognize that the KRG's unilateral referendum on independence in September put your government in a difficult position, alarmed other interested parties in the region, and risked distracting from the fight against ISIS at a critical phase.," the letter states. "However, we are also mindful of the immense support the KRG has provided over the years, including in counter-ISIS efforts, and we continue to support a strong KRG within a unified and federal Iraq."
The violent clashes between Iraqi and Kurdish forces have distracted from the ongoing fight against ISIS in the country, according to the lawmakers.
"We would like to take this opportunity to stress our belief that the fight against ISIS is far from over," the senators wrote to al-Abadi. "A rift between Iraqi Kurds and the rest of the country will only exacerbate an already difficult situation."
"Stable, peaceful, and productive relations between the KRG and the Iraqi Government should be a critical priority for both our countries," they wrote.