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Clashing statements expose rift in Iraqi paramilitary force

QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 12, 2019 file photo, plumes of smoke rise after an explosion at a military base southwest of Baghdad, Iraq. A fact-finding committee appointed by the Iraqi government to investigate a massive munitions depot explosion near the capital Baghdad has concluded that the blast was the result of a drone strike. A copy of the report was obtained by The Associated Press Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Loay Hameed, File)

BAGHDAD (AP) — The head of Iraq's paramilitary forces supported by Iran on Thursday walked back a statement by his deputy the day before in which he blamed Israeli drones and held the U.S. responsible for a series of attacks on bases run by the militias.

Faleh al-Fayyadh said the statement by his deputy, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, did not represent the view of the mainly Shiite militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces — or the view of the Iraqi government. Al-Fayyadh's statement alleged the attacks on the bases over the past weeks "were the result of an act organized by a foreign side," but refrained from naming that side.

The statements highlight divisions within the paramilitary force, which is headed by al-Fayyadh but practically run by his deputy, a powerful military commander known for his anti-American sentiments. The militia group's website published only al-Muhandis' statement on Thursday.

Later on Thursday, the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, claimed its air defenses targeted a reconnaissance drone flying over one of its headquarters in the capital, foiling its spying mission. It did not elaborate.

Iraq's fragile government is walking a fine line trying to manage its alliances with both the United States and Iran amid rising tensions between the two.

Iran wields powerful influence through its support of the militias, which are sanctioned by the Iraqi government and which were a major force in the fight against the Islamic State group. At the same time, Iraq hosts American troops and forces belonging to the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS.

The statements by al-Fayyadh and al-Muhandis followed at least three mysterious explosions at militia bases and munitions depot around Iraq over the past month, including a massive blast near Baghdad that killed one civilian and wounded 28 on August 12. A government investigation, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday, found the blast near Baghdad was caused by a drone strike.

American officials denied the U.S. had any role in the explosions.

The blast has also given rise to a host of theories, including that Israel may have been behind the attacks. Israel has struck Iranian bases in neighboring Syria on numerous occasions, and there has been speculation that it might be expanding its campaign to target Iranian bases to Iraq. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the reports and the Iraqi government has remained mostly mute.

On Wednesday, the statement signed by al-Muhandis broke the silence, blaming the attacks, which it said were carried out by Israeli drones, on the Americans and vowing to defend itself against future attack.

The statement, which appears to have been issued without prior consultation with Iraqi security forces, was met with silence from official circles that went on for hours— an embarrassing sign of how the militias operate independently. Al-Muhandis, who once battled U.S. troops in Iraq, also commands the feared Hezbollah Brigades faction, which has close ties to Iran and is on a U.S. list of designated terrorists.

In a marked escalation in rhetoric, the Brigades issued a fiery statement later Thursday warning the U.S. that any new attack on an Iraqi position will be met with a harsh response. "And be sure that if the confrontation between us starts, it will only end with your removal from the region once and for all," it said.

An official with the Brigades told The Associated Press earlier that Iran played a direct role in wording the statement issued by al-Muhandis on Wednesday, and that al-Fayyadh likely issued the statement following pressure from the Americans on the Iraqi government. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Harith Hasan, a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, wrote on Twitter that the statement by al-Fayyadh reflects the rift or lack of coordination within the PMF leadership.

Iraq's top leaders held a meeting at the presidential palace later Thursday to discuss the developments. In a statement following the meeting, they stressed the need for security and military decisions to be limited to the commander of the armed forces and warned against attempts to drag the country into wars.

The leader of one of the most powerful Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, Qais al-Khizali, threw his weight behind al-Muhandis, tweeting: "The PMF statement is spot on. Anyone who thinks to target the security of Iraq once again must beware that Iraq is no longer the same. It has the full ability to defend itself."