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Baghdad is burning. But who lit the fire?

Members of Iraqi Shiite armed group popular mobilization

Members of Iraqi Shiite armed group popular mobilization forces and their supporters set fire in front of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, on Jan 1, 2020. Supporters of Iranian-backed militias have withdrawn from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad following two days of sit-ins after a deadly U.S. airstrike that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia on Dec. 29. Credit: EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/MURTAJA LATEEF

In the complex triangle of U.S.-Iran-Iraq relations, Washington and Baghdad need each other — particularly now, when events in the region reach a dangerous boil after the U.S. strike in Iraq that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of elite Iranian forces.

Coming on the heels of a U.S. strike in retaliation for the killing of an American contractor in Iraq and protesters storming the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, this volatile situation will require sophisticated diplomacy to resolve.

Many readers can be forgiven for the confusion over why Iraq, allegedly America’s friend, is seemingly out of control when the source of our ire is Iran. That’s because Iran is trying to diminish America’s footprint in the Middle East and reshape its neighborhood, including Iraq on its border.

What is becoming increasingly obvious is that since 2003, Iran has embedded itself deep inside Iraq, using proxy militias to extend its power, and possibly placing short-range ballistic missiles inside the country. Although the U.S. military presence in Iraq is about 5,000 troops, we still have many contractors, soldiers and diplomatic personnel to protect in Iraq, and U.S. interests that extend throughout the Middle East.

Even if we produce enough oil at home, there are oil tankers streaming through the Persian Gulf with the flags of our European allies. Israel lives in the neighborhood and needs our support. On a humanitarian level, we have thousands of people streaming out of Syria, Yemen and Turkey to protect. And our security at home also depends on security overseas.

We live with the threat of terrorism and/or war with Iran, which is preparing for its next nuclear weapons enrichment jump to break further from the limits set by the international community. U.S. sanctions remain but that hardly seems to be preventing Iran from whipping up anti-American fever inside Iraq. Rather than striking Iran, the United States has chosen to strike Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria and that has provoked outrage inside Iraq at a time when its domestic politics is uncertain.

Understandably, Americans may be weary of Iraq given our track record.

On Jan. 16, 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced the start of what would become known as Operation Desert Storm — a military offensive to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait, which Iraq had invaded and annexed months before.

For weeks, a U.S.-led coalition placed 900,000 troops in the region — mostly on the Iraqi border — which led to a five-week bombardment of Iraqi command-and-control targets from the air and sea. Despite widespread fears that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might order the use of chemical weapons, a ground invasion followed in February. Coalition forces swiftly drove Iraq from Kuwait. Hussein remained in power. Coalition casualties were in the hundreds, Iraqi losses numbered in the tens of thousands.

Fast forward to March 20, 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq. After an intense, months-long propaganda campaign, a majority of Americans supported going to war. The George W. Bush administration had told us over and over that it was an act of self-preservation, for if we didn’t invade, Hussein, who officials said probably had something to do with Sept. 11, 2001, would attack us with his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

So here we are at the start of 2020 and tensions are soaring between Washington and Baghdad. Ultimately, we will have to engage Iran, hopefully diplomatically, but not without some concessions on sanctions.

Tara DSonenshine, a former U.S. undersecretary of state in the Obama administration, advises students at The George Washington University.

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