In the past few weeks, Iraqi federal forces and the militias who fight under the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) umbrella have taken back most of the disputed territory that the Kurdistan Region had hoped to incorporate into a future state. These disputed territories include the Nineveh Plains area, the heartland of Christianity in Iraq and a multiethnic series of farming villages bordering the city of Mosul. The forces crossed the Ba’ashiqa line and reached the town of Teleskuf, where Peshmerga forces began to fire on the advancing Iraqi forces. Hundreds of Christians who had recently moved back to the town rebuilt by the Hungarian government had to flee the crossfire with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Speedy intervention by the United States prevented the clashes from turning into a full-scale battle.
While the dust has not yet settled over the disputed territories in Iraq, a new reality is settling in for the residents of the Nineveh Plains. For the first time in more than a decade, the Iraqi Central Government instead of the Kurdistan Regional Government has control over most of the area—save the town of Alqosh in the north of the Plains. One militia whose role has greatly expanded in the Plains is the Babylon Brigades, whose presence extends from the nearly empty town of Tel Kayf to the populated towns of Batnaya and Ba’ashiqa. The militia, which has ties to Iran, has spread anxiety among civilians about growing Iranian expansion in Iraq’s north.
Iran’s bottom-up approach is why its foreign policy has been so successful in Iraq. Its leaders have been able to project a great deal of power, using the cracks in Iraqi stability to cement their own interests and bolster their allies among the Iraqi militias. This expansion threatens the embattled Christian community that has been struggling to recuperate since the fall of ISIS. Policymakers in Washington and Iraq should be mindful of this expansion before they wake up with a destabilizing Iranian canton in the Nineveh Plains, strategically wedged between Kurdistan and Mosul.