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story.lead_photo.caption In this file photo taken on Nov. 9, 2016, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman speaks to the press during a gathering to watch U.S. election results in Baghdad.

BAGHDAD -- As Iraq emerges from three years of war with the Islamic State militant group, the U.S. is looking to roll back the influence of neighboring Iran and help the central government resolve its dispute with the Kurdish region, the American envoy to the country said.

U.S. Ambassador Douglas Silliman took the post in Baghdad in September 2016, weeks before the start of the operation to retake the northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State. Now that the militant group has been driven out of all the territory it once held and Iraq has declared that the war against the extremists is over, Silliman said, Washington is focused on rebuilding but sees Iran's influence as a problem.

"Iran simply does not respect the sovereignty of its neighbors," Silliman said.

"The Iranians have -- to some extent -- assisted the government of Iraq in defeating ISIS," he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. "But frankly, I have not seen the Iranians donating money for humanitarian assistance, I have not seen them contributing to the U.N. stabilization program."

[THE ISLAMIC STATE: Timeline of group’s rise, fall; details on campaign to fight it]

Iran, a Shiite country, gained influence in Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led dictatorship and empowered the country's Shiite majority.

When the Islamic State swept across northern and central Iraq in the summer of 2014, Iran-backed militias mobilized in the country's defense, providing a bulwark in many areas while the beleaguered armed forces were rebuilt. The now state-sanctioned paramilitaries, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, consist of tens of thousands of mostly Shiite fighters deployed across the country. Victories against the Islamic State have made their leaders increasingly powerful.

On Monday, the leader of one of those militias, the influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, urged his fighters to hand state-issued weapons back to the government.

In a speech broadcast on Iraqi television, al-Sadr also called on his forces to hand over some territory to other branches of Iraq's security forces, but he said his men would continue to guard a holy Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr warned members of the paramilitary forces against participating in elections scheduled for May.

President Donald Trump's administration has called for such forces to disband after the fight against the militants is complete. It has also vowed to take a much tougher line on Iran, threatening to pull the U.S. out of a landmark 2015 nuclear agreement and levying sanctions on Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard.

Iraq, meanwhile, is seeking external support for reconstruction after the war, which the government says caused an estimated $100 billion in damage. About 3 million Iraqis are still displaced.

The Trump administration has made clear that the $14.3 billion military campaign against the Islamic State will not be replaced with a similarly funded reconstruction effort. International aid organizations are instead looking to wealthy Gulf states.

"Iraq is coming out of a difficult period where there had been a lot of economic destruction, lots of social disruption, and we think that it is important for Iraq to have good, positive relationships with all of its neighbors, and Iran is included in that," Silliman said.

He said the U.S. was encouraged by recent Iraqi efforts to reach out to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, allies that could play a bigger role in the country going forward.

The U.S. is also hoping to help calm tensions between the central government and the northern Kurdish region after a September independence referendum that was rejected by Baghdad. Federal forces clashed with Kurdish fighters in October as Baghdad retook disputed territories that the Kurds had seized from the Islamic State.

"The relatively modest role we are playing is to help both sides find ways to walk through the door of discussions," Silliman said, adding that while both sides support "the idea" of discussions, negotiations to end the crisis have not yet begun.

Information for this article was contributed by staff members of The Associated Press.

A Section on 12/12/2017

Print Headline: U.S. to counter Iran influence in Iraq

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