After several slow, excruciatingly bloody victories in Iraq and Syria against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has evidently decided that the foreign fighters helping in those battles were there at the pleasure of the United States and are now to “go home.”
The Associated Press reported that in an attempt to get U.S. ally Saudi Arabia to play a greater role in Iraq post-ISIS, Tillerson took aim at Iran and the Hashd al-Shaabi (also knows as the Popular Mobalization Forces) militia it supports in Iraq, which has been instrumental in pushing ISIS out of Mosul, Tal Afar, and other territories in Iraq.
“Those fighters need to go home. Any foreign fighters need to go home,” Tillerson said on Sunday, which, as the AP pointed out, was problematic because, “History, religion and lots of politics stand in Tillerson’s way.”
To start with, the majority of the Hashd al-Shabi fighters are Iraqi, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wasted no time in pointing that out on Twitter while taking a shot at cozy U.S.-Saudi relations:
Exactly what country is it that Iraqis who rose up to defend their homes against ISIS return to? Shameful US FP, dictated by petrodollars.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) October 22, 2017
Indeed, what President Donald Trump’s top diplomat said showed a total lack of understanding for the long-standing relationships in the region, problematic as they may be to the U.S. goal of isolating Iran, as Trump continues to wage a solitary battle to undo the multilateral 2015 Iran deal. It’s unclear how Tillerson thought his message would be received by the families of Iraqis who have died in various protracted battles against ISIS.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office also released a statement rejecting U.S. interference in Iraqi affairs, adding that, “Popular Mobilisation are Iraqi patriots.”
“It was a very unrealistic comment,” said Marina Ottaway, Middle East Fellow The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She’s not sure if Tillerson meant the Iranians should go home or if the Shia fighters should go back to their own Shia territory in the south.
“I think that might have been very clumsy phrasing,” she said. Either way, Ottaway described Tillerson’s statement as “absurd,” adding that he just “embarrassed himself,” and that his statement was “so detached from reality that it makes no sense.”
“The way in which the United States is not recognizing the fact that it is not a major player in Iraq. It’s still deluding itself that it has a lot of influence over Iraq and the Iraqi government. It does not. The Iranians have infinitely more influence,” said Ottaway.
She said that Abadi would probably like to rely less on Iranians, but from the start of the war against ISIS in 2014, it was clear that the Shia militia would be needed in the operations to take back Tikrit and Ramadi. The United States tried to get a commitment from Baghdad to keep the Shia militia out, but ultimately, gave up on that request. Baghdad, after all, not only needed the Shia firepower, but also required the political backing it got from Iran — and it still does.
The United States also shouldn’t bank on their attempt to forge an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
“That has been going on for a long time. The United States has been putting pressure on the Sunni Arab states to play a bigger role in Iraq, ever since the  invasion,” said Ottaway. This, though, she said would be “inviting a new confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Iraq.” This sounds potentially dangerous, but, said Ottaway, the Saudis probably have little interest in this, as there’s no centralized Sunni power to back against Iran.
“So, again, it’s a kind of policy that is not rooted in the realities on the ground,” she said.
All of this happening in the foreground of tensions between the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq and Baghdad. In the past week, Iraqi forces, with the backing of Hashd al-Shabi, have taken back several territories from the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, with the United States trying to play a neutral role that has so far served to damage its relationship with the KRG.