A battle is unfolding in Saddam Hussein’s old tribal capital of Tikrit. Unthinkable just a decade ago, the main government forces leading the battle are Shiite fighters—the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) that are under the control of militia leaders. These forces’ main partners are Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey has called the situation “the most overt conduct of Iranian support” since the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) began. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing, he hinted, as long as such forces refrain from inflaming sectarian tensions.
His comments get to the heart of the debate over Iran’s role in Iraq and the appropriate division of labor between the U.S.-led international coalition and Tehran in the fight against ISIS. The White House seems to view growing Iranian involvement in the war as a reality that cannot be wished away, which is probably true, but also as a step forward in U.S.-Iranian relations, which is arguably naive.
Events on the ground in eastern Iraq suggest a different way of looking at the issue. If anything, the battle for Tikrit has shown that there is a whole side of the war from which the international community has been deliberately excluded. Iran and its Iraqi proxies have been carving out a zone of influence in eastern Iraq for well over a decade. And this zone, as Dempsey noted, is expanding.
Iraq, in short, could be experiencing what Lebanon did decades ago as Hezbollah fighters took the Bekaa Valley. In this case, the land in question is Mesopotamia and the forces are PMUs, but the result will be the same: a swath of land in which the government is gradually ceding ground to powerful paramilitary factions with strong terrorist connections.
There is a natural blending of Iraq and Iran in their shared border provinces. Large Shiite populations extend
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