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Abadi tells Tillerson: PMF is hope of Iraq and region

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 23/10/2017
Tillerson (left) and Abadi met on Monday for the second time in two days [Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera Tillerson (left) and Abadi met on Monday for the second time in two days [Reuters]

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has rejected a call by Washington for Iranian-trained fighters to leave Iraq at a meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Baghdad.

Tillerson made the unnanounced visit to the Iraqi capital on Monday came amid heightened tensions between the two countries over the role of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), Shia militias that helped defeat ISIL in Iraq.

The top US diploamt had previously called for Iraq-based "Iranian militias ... to go home" as the fight against ISIL "is coming to a close".

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But Abadi insisted on Monday that the force consists solely of Iraqi nationals who "fought terrorism" and made sacrifices that contributed to victory over ISIL.

Calling it "part of the Iraqi institutions," Abadi said PMF fighters "should be encouraged because they will be the hope of country and the region", according to a statement by his media office.

Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, waded into debate, tweeting on Monday: "Exactly what country is it that Iraqis who rose up to defend their homes against ISIS return to?"

Kirkuk in control of Baghdad 

Tillerson's visit to Baghdad came a few days after the Iraqi army, backed by the PMF, claimed control of all of oil-rich Kirkuk province after it captured Altun Kupri following intense fighting with Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

Baghdad's forces had previously captured Kirkuk city, as part of a major military operation in the wake of a controversial September 25 referendum on Kurdish secession that Baghdad had declared illegal.

Al Jazeera's Stefanie Dekker, reporting from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, said the issue of PMF's role is complicated to resolve for a number of reasons.

"They have different command structure although they fall under the commander in chief, who is Abadi. This issue is also closely linked to curtailing the growing Iranian influence in the region," she said.

"We know that the Americans want to resolve the conflict between Kurds and Baghdad through dialogue," Dekker said.

"They are going to be keen to push forward some sort of timeframe to solve disputed territory issue," she said.

Tillerson's Iraq visit came a day after he and Abadi, along with Saudi King Salman, participated in the inaugural meeting of the Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Committee in Riyadh.

Earlier on Monday, before meeting Abadi for the second time in two days, Tillerson flew from Qatar to Afghanistan's Bagram Air Base, where he met President Ashraf Ghani and other Afghan leaders.

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