As U.S. foreign policy adapts to Israel’s continued efforts to destroy Hamas and Iran’s escalating campaign of terrorism, other policy priorities in the region must not be forgotten. One such top priority is ensuring the permanent defeat of ISIS by working with local security partners in Iraq and Syria. Iran’s growing influence across the region, especially in Iraq, imperils this important mission and poses a broader threat to American national security beyond the region. 

Before the October 7th terror attacks, the approximately 2,500 U.S. troops based in Iraq frequently came under attack by local Iran-backed militias. These same militias were formed primarily out of Iraqi Shia to fight as insurgents against the U.S. after the 2003 U.S. invasion. After years of terrorism and sectarian violence, these militias were formally absorbed into the Iraqi security forces under the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), granting them some protection and authority within Iraq to enact Iran’s agenda.

Since October 7th, U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Syria have faced over 120 attacks from these militias. The Iraqi government has previously taken limited and inconsequential steps to disrupt attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.  Given the ambivalence of the Iraqi government toward protecting their American partners, the United States had no choice but to forcefully strike back. On January 4th, 2024, the U.S. killed Mashtaq al-Jawari, a leader of an Iran-backed militia operating in Iraq and Syria, via a precise airstrike in Baghdad. 

This defensive action was met with expected outrage by the Iran-backed faction in Iraq’s government and security forces, denouncing the strike as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The latter demand has been pursued by Tehran’s patrons in Iraq since the death of Qasem Soleimani in 2020, when the Iraqi Parliament passed a resolution to this effect that went ignored. With Iran’s agents’ fervor re-ignited with greater resolve, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani announced the creation of a committee to make arrangements for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. 

Shortly thereafter, reports emerged that al-Sudani’s advisors had quickly backtracked, communicating to American officials that the declaration was only “an attempt to satisfy domestic political audiences” and that no deadline had been set for this “quick” withdrawal. This incident demonstrated the conflicted nature of Iraqi politics, caught between the influence of the United States and Iran, underlining the importance of continued U.S. engagement in Iraq. Iran’s own missile strikes on Iraq complicated this incident further as the Iraqi government considered filing a complaint with the U.N. Security Council and recalled its ambassador from Tehran, indicating a stronger response to the Iranian “aggression.” 

The exchange of strikes between the U.S. military and Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria escalated after the killing of three U.S. servicemembers in Jordan. The objective of these strikes is to force the U.S. to withdraw its troops from the region through either Iraqi indignation or an exhaustion of American political will. Ultimately, the U.S. will not be able to remove the security threat through counterstrikes alone and will require the cooperation of the Iraqi government to dismantle these Iranian-supported militias. In light of these developments, negotiating with the Iraqi government to maintain the U.S. military presence with more credible security guarantees from Iraqi security forces is the clear path forward. 

American withdrawal from Iraq would cement Iran’s influence and jeopardize our substantial investment into the stabilization of Iraq and the wider region, threatening U.S. national security. Critics of the U.S. military presence argue that our military presence risks a regional escalation in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Iran. However, in the long term, the U.S. military has provided critical assistance to Iraq’s security forces while preventing the escalation of other regional conflicts, such as clashes between Turkey and Kurdish groups in northern Iraq and Syria. 

Today, Iranian actors are expanding their control in Iraq far beyond their historical influence over Iraqi Shia, using religious and ethnic minority communities as instruments for their agenda. Rayyan al-Kildani, founder of the Babylon Brigade militia (now under the PMF) and its associated political wing, the Babylon Movement, exemplifies the tokenization of religious and ethnic minorities. While these organizations are nominally Christian, they are supported by Shia Iraqis and do not represent the interests of the Christian communities of Iraq. Al-Kildani, sanctioned by U.S. Treasury for human rights abuses, wishes to supplant traditional Christian community leaders, notably the Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Cardinal Raphael Sako, and present himself as the legitimate leader of Iraq’s Christians. 

These efforts manifested last year when al-Sudani announced the revocation of Cardinal Sako’s legal recognition as Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, forcing him to flee from his traditional seat in Baghdad to a monastery in the autonomous Kurdistan region. The revocation of this decree gave legitimacy to al-Kildani’s claims which were further solidified by recent elections in which the Babylon Movement captured all four seats allocated to Christians in Iraq’s provincial councils. A church-backed candidate, Fahram Ignatius, won one of these elections but he was disqualified after a legal case linked Ignatius to the outlawed Ba’ath Party of Saddam Hussein. 

Al-Kildani’s success in stealing the parliamentary seats reserved for Christian minorities relies heavily on support from Shia Iraqis rather than the minority Christians for whom the seats are intended. Shia Iraqis make up a majority of the voters who elect candidates to occupy the seats reserved for Christians due to a loophole in Iraqi election law. It’s these Iran-backed political factions in Iraqi politics that enable the Iran-backed militias to operate in Iraq and target U.S. troops. Al-Kildani’s lack of legitimate support from the bona fide Christian voters of Iraq is obfuscated by ridiculous stunts such as when he faked a meeting with Pope Francis. Such absurdity is irrelevant when government and judicial corruption, paired with threats of violence from Iran’s militias, empower al-Kildani to ignore the anger directed at him from the very community he claims to represent. 

Ultimately, the only path forward to preserve a democratic, pluralistic, and sovereign Iraq is through engagement with the international community, especially the United States. Resisting Iran’s takeover will require the U.S. to draw international attention to the democratic backsliding in the country and be present and engage continuously with Iraqi civil society in military and non-military matters. Surrendering Iraq to Iran’s agents would not only squander our substantial investment in Iraq’s stability. Additionally, it would greatly increase Iran’s capability to threaten American interests in the Levant through its influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. 

The first step in undoing Iran’s grip over Iraq will be ending the political career of warlord Rayyan al-Kildani by ensuring true electoral representation for Iraq’s endangered religious minorities. The cessation of Iran’s influence over the PMF by either incorporating them into the larger Iraqi security forces or disarmament will also be necessary. Only through robust American and international engagement can Iran’s malign influence over the Near East be countered, and that’s only possible with an American military presence in Iraq.