Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq, says the "foremost threat to Iraq's long-term stability" is not the self-described Islamic State but Shiite militias backed, and sometimes guided, by Iran.
Petraeus' comments, which were made to The Washington Post in an interview published Friday, came at a conference in Sulaimaniya, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Petraeus oversaw the "surge" of troops into Iraq in 2007 and 2008, which succeeded in quelling the bloody Sunni rebellion after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.
But since the end of combat operations in Iraq, violence in Iraq has spiked, a development Petraeus called a "tragedy — for the Iraqi people, for the region and for the entire world."
"It is tragic foremost because it didn't have to turn out this way," he said.
"The hard-earned progress of the Surge was sustained for over three years. What transpired after that, starting in late 2011, came about as a result of mistakes and misjudgments whose consequences were predictable. And there is plenty of blame to go around for that.
"Yet despite that history and the legacy it has left, I think Iraq and the coalition forces are making considerable progress against the Islamic State. In fact, I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq's long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by — and some guided by — Iran."
Petraeus, who headed the CIA before his resignation amid scandal in 2012, said: "Longer term, Iranian-backed Shia militia could emerge as the pre-eminent power in the country, one that is outside the control of the government and instead answerable to Tehran."
Indeed, Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, has toured the battlefield in which Shiite militias have waged a bloody battle against the Islamic State, which controls portions of Iraq territory.
Petraeus' comments may also be significant as the Obama administration works to conclude an agreement with Iran on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. The talks themselves have been opposed by some U.S. allies, including Israel, as well as lawmakers from both parties in Congress.
"The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East," Petraeus told The Post. "It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution."
He added: "Iranian power in the Middle East is thus a double problem. It is foremost problematic because it is deeply hostile to us and our friends. But it is also dangerous because, the more it is felt, the more it sets off reactions that are also harmful to our interests — Sunni radicalism and, if we aren't careful, the prospect of nuclear proliferation as well."
You can read the full interview here.