You’re forgiven if you’ve found the recent news in Iraq difficult to understand, because like many conflicts in the region, it involves complicated alliances, uncertain facts, and Americans blundering into situations we don’t understand, setting in motion a chain of events whose consequences we can’t begin to anticipate. So, to summarize in a way that will likely still be a massive over-simplification, thousands of protesters in Iraq have attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, smashing windows and doors and breaking through the main gate into an inner courtyard where they came face to face with U.S. troops. Why did this happen? Let’s trace it back:
1. The protesters were furious at U.S. airstrikes against a militia called Kataeb Hezbollah, which killed 25 over three targets in Iraq and Syria. (This militia is different from the Hezbollah that operates in Lebanon.)
2. The strikes were in retaliation for a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base—allegedly carried out by the militia last week—which killed an American contractor and wounded six others, including four American service members.
3. So why were Iraqis upset when the militia apparently attacked their own country’s military base? Well, first you have to know two basic and seemingly contradictory facts. The first is that Kataeb Hezbollah is backed by Iran. The second is that they’re also part of an Iraqi “state-sponsored” umbrella organization of militias formed in 2014 called the Popular Mobilization Forces. The PMF militias operate somewhat autonomously, but are officially incorporated into the Iraqi armed forces. They have been critical in battling ISIS in Iraq. In this sense, the U.S. and Kataeb Hezbollah are “allies.”