(Agencies) - The malign influence of Iran-backed militias in areas of Iraq could lead to new conflict and allow the return of ISIS, a senior US diplomat has warned.
Andrew Peek, deputy assistant secretary for Iran and Iraq at the US State Department, told The National that the greatest concerns were in areas once run by ISIS but are now controlled by groups that answer to Tehran.
“Where does ISIS come back?” Mr Peek said on the fringes of Chatham House’s Iraq in Transition conference in London.
“It comes back in areas where there are sectarian gains on religious minority population or populations that are not represented, where the security forces do not look like them or pray like them, where there are sectarian gains in majority Sunni areas."
He said that ISIS had not gone from Iraq but was hiding underground.
With the continued threat from the radical group, Mr Peek warned that the US and its allies needed to remain “very vigilant”.
He said it was crucial to promote the integration of Iraq’s different communities to stop another resurgence, “whether it is ISIS or whatever radical iteration has come in the past or, God forbid, comes in the future”.
As Iraq and the US-backed coalition battled ISIS, Iran-backed militias, called into action by a 2014 fatwa from Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, played a pivotal role while fighting alongside Kurdish and Iraqi security forces.
But after the ISIS defeat, the US has been increasingly critical of the role of the militias and the power Iran wields through them.
Mr Peek said their presence in Iraq an areas where Baghdad and Tehran did not enjoy an equal relationship.
“We want Iraq to have a normal relationship with Iran,” he said. “This means the 30,000 or 40,000 armed men in Iraq that answer to Tehran right now answer to Baghdad.
After the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, Iraq has felt the strain of increased tensions between Tehran and Washington.
Mr Peek said Iraqis needed to look beyond Iran for support and development.
“This is precisely where the capabilities of the region and Iran diverge,” he said.
“The Iranians cannot provide for their lives what they need to be stable and Iraq's Arab neighbours as an entree to the international community can."
In recent days, Iraq’s capital Baghdad and other cities across the country have been hit by violent protests that have led to the deaths of at least 20 protesters.
A curfew has been imposed in Baghdad, Najaf and the southern city of Amarah.
The US has urged restraint from Iraq’s security forces.
“We would reiterate the right to freedom of expression and the right to protest, as well as call on all sides to avoid violence," Mr Peek said. "That's incredibly important."