Weeks before the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the commander of American forces General Lloyd Austin here urged the Iraqi government to keep fighting extremists, especially the Iran-backed militias he said threaten to form a state within a state, The Wall Street Journal reported.
"Iraq now has the opportunity to become a leader in the region if it chooses to stay on the right path," said Gen. Austin, who will soon finish his third tour in Iraq. "First, I think they have to continue to apply pressure on the violent extremist networks."
Gen. Austin said that while insurgents linked to al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's former ruling Baath Party remained a threat, especially in the north, the Iraqi government should be at least as concerned about the Shiite militias he said were trained, funded and equipped by Iran.
He named Mr. Sadr's Katayeb al-Youm al-Maoud, Asaib Ahal al-Haq and Katayeb Hezbollah, which the U.S. has said is directly controlled by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Gen. Austin said such groups were still being supplied with weapons from Iran even as U.S. soldiers depart, suggesting that they might be gearing up to fight their rivals in Iraq.
"These are elements that are really focused on creating a Lebanese Hezbollah kind of organization in this country: a government within a government," he said. "As we leave, if these elements are left unchecked they will then eventually turn on the government."
Gen. Austin also expressed concern over recent threats by Iran-backed militias to target the U.S. State Department-led mission - estimated at 16,000 and largely made up of civilian and security contractors - set to stay in Iraq after the troops leave.
"We would expect that the Iraqi security forces would do the necessary things to protect our diplomats and again we have every indication that they would do so," Gen. Austin said.