WASHINGTON — Iraq’s highest-ranking Sunni leader said Tuesday the growing influence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias looms as the nation’s most pressing future security threat and called for bolstering U.S. military aid to Sunni forces.
In Washington for talks this week with Trump administration officials and congressional leaders, Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi is hoping the administration will deliver on pledges to counter Iran’s growing influence inside Iraq and across the Middle East.
Al-Nujaifi is one of Iraq’s three vice presidents, and his brother heads a prominent Iraqi defense faction. Both have been represented in Washington by the same lobbyist employed last year by Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser. In February, Trump fired Flynn, who is now under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.
In remarks Tuesday at the U.S. Institute of Peace, al-Nujaifi described Shiite militias in Iraq operating as a “parallel army” that could divide the nation even as Iraq’s military is driving out Islamic State fighters with the aid of American troops.
The Iranian-backed factions “have gained a lot of power and maybe they can pose more problems,” al-Nujaifi said.
In an interview with The Associated Press and in an earlier draft of his remarks, al-Nujaifi was more explicit about his interest in securing military aid for Iraqi Sunni factions overmatched by Iran’s equipping and training of Shiite militias.
“More attention should be paid to the strengthening of military capabilities of the people of former ISIS-occupied areas, training and enabling them to defend their areas,” his speech says, according to a draft provided to the AP. He was referring to mostly Sunni areas recently liberated from IS fighters.