U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that Iranian militias, who helped defeat the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq, should depart the country as the battle against the terrorist group comes to a close.
"Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home. The foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control," Tillerson said at a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Sunday.
According to a senior U.S. official, Tillerson was referring to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and the Quds Force, the foreign paramilitary and espionage arm of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The PMF, which receives funding and training from Tehran, was formed after tens of thousands of Iraqis heeded a call to arms when ISIS seized a third of the country's territory in 2014.
Tillerson visited Riyadh to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and King Salman of Saudi Arabia to discuss cooperation in the region as well as the Iranian influence in Iraq.
Al-Abadi appeared to have rebuffed Tillerson's call to disband Iran-backed militias during their meeting in Baghdad on Monday.
The Iraqi Prime Minister contended that the paramilitaries were Iraqis, not Iranian proxies, and that they "should be encouraged because they will be the hope of country and the region."
They "defended their country and sacrificed themselves to defeat the Islamic State group," the statement from the Prime Minister's office said, according to BBC.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had also rejected Tillerson's call and accused U.S. foreign policy of being driven by oil.
"Exactly what country is it that Iraqis who rose up to defend their homes against ISIS return to? Shameful US FP, dictated by petrodollars," Zarif tweeted, as reported by Arab News.
Tillerson's remarks came as representatives of the Christian community in Iraq complained about how the Iranian presence is intimidating them and preventing them from returning to their homes.
Nina Shea, a human rights lawyer and the director of Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, said that the U.S. government should not ignore the fact that Iran is "aggressively" establishing schools, mosques, libraries and other establishments in Christian towns.
She said that Christians are being intimidated by Iranian militias in their towns, prompting them to sell their land.
Earlier this month, Shea warned that Iran had opened up a school in the Christian town of Bartella named after Ayatollah Khomeini. She further noted that checkpoints in Nineveh towns where Christians have not returned are manned by Iranian-backed militias flying sectarian flags.