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There are other agendas behind Iraq militia promises to liberate Jerusalem

Jerusalem Gate in Baghdad, Iraq. [James Gordon/Flickr]

According to a senior researcher at the Foreign Relations Bureau, “Everyone wants to polish their image using Palestine.” The London-based Iraqi opposition organisation’s Ahmad Mahmoud made his comment following US President Donald Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel last week.

Militias big and small have spoken in unison against what was initially viewed as an impromptu announcement by Trump, and have promised to liberate Jerusalem and end America’s combat mission in Iraq once and for all. The strategy for this has yet to emerge, but Trump’s declaration has speeded-up the demise of his country’s framework of cooperation with Baghdad-led militias; the removal of US troops from Iraq is behind opposition to his pro-Israel move.

First in a long line of militia critics was Iranian-backed Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba paramilitary group. Its official spokesman, Akram Al-Kaabi, warned that America had made itself a target, describing an attack on US forces as legitimate in response to Trump’s sharp swerve on the status of Jerusalem.

Taking their cue from Harakat Hezbollah, Sadrist-aligned Sarayat Al-Salam militia has voiced equivalent threats to remove US troops from Iraqi soil. Muqtada Al-Sadr himself went as far as to announce the formation of a new militia — Qudsiyu Al-Sadr — tasked with liberating Jerusalem; it is a distinct entity from Sarayat Al-Salam. “The Islamic Resistance Movement,” Sadr warned, “would like to remind Israel that we can reach its borders via Syria.”

The Iraqi imam’s followers flooded Baghdad’s sprawling Sadr City last Friday in a show of manufactured dissent against Trump’s treachery for reversing decades of US foreign policy. Blistering remarks voiced by Sadr, his protégés and paramilitary commanders are, by and large, conceived largely in response to antagonism that mirrors their own.

Read: Bahrain delegation’s visit to Israel: Why now and for what purpose?

So much is expected, but the five-year partnership between Washington and Baghdad appears to be out of step with rhetoric escalated by Iran-sponsored Shia militias. Notwithstanding their self-promotion, documented abuse exercised by militias against Iraq’s Palestinian community undermines their claims about Jerusalem.

Calls for the Muslim Ummah’s unity, as emphasised by Sadr, similarly overlook his long history of stoking sectarian violence against Sunnis. “We call on all Islamic and Arab countries to ensure the closure of America’s embassies, even if temporarily,” he said. Israeli embassies should be closed permanently, he insisted.

The speech appears to have offered Sadr another opportunity for voicing objections to the wars in which Iraq’s neighbours are embroiled. He has emphasised the role that Saudi Arabia could play as the protector of Jerusalem. Resolving the Saudi-Iran rift, he added, “aids our mission in confronting the common enemy that is Israel.”

In linking the status of Jerusalem to the rift between Riyadh and Tehran, Sadr has exposed himself as an impediment to finding a resolution for religious and political rivalries in the wider region. The chances of Saudi leading Jerusalem’s liberation, while its arms are linked with Israel on one side and America on the other, are slim. Homing in on Saudi allows Sadr to buy time and use Jerusalem as a bargaining chip.

Read more: Iraq: Arab League’s statement on Jerusalem ‘disappointing’

The Foreign Relations Bureau questioned the logic of his speech, and asked whether Saudi Arabia will step up and “serve as the nucleus of Islamic resistance against Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem while [Sadr] and other militias continue to follow Tehran as their prayer compass.”

It is ironic that while Sadr stands against Trump’s illegal endorsement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, 14 years ago he endorsed a different illegal undertaking in the shape of the occupation of his own country by a US-led coalition. Today, more than 5,000 US troops are still in Iraq, and are there to stay until Daesh has been annihilated. The commander of the Saraya al-Khorasani militia, Ali Al-Yasiri, accuses America of exploiting its jurisdiction to renew its stay in Iraq, despite being uninvited.

The road to Jerusalem’s liberation will need more than words. For now, though, Iraqi militias are using this latest opportunity to enhance their power and prestige ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, the commander of the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq militia, Qais Al-Khazali, and others, have joined in the chorus, slamming Trump’s latest executive order as “a declaration of war”.

The Iraqi militias look set to continue to promise that 2018 will mark the closing chapter of America’s uninvited stay in their country. Trump’s attack on Jerusalem is ammunition for their cause.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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