On July 8, 2020, the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, announced his belief that US and NATO troops would continue to maintain a presence on the ground in Iraq. Although the exact size and responsibility of the military assistance remains to be determined, Iranian backed militia's have expressed their disapproval over the Iraqi government's decision. More concerning for the Iraqi government, Kataib Hezbollah (KH), the largest and most secretive militia acting on behalf of the Iranian government, vowed a swift "escalation" if Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi continues a crackdown on Iranian-backed militias in the country.
Since the end of 2019, the security situation in Iraq has swiftly deteriorated. In December, the United States Air Force and United States Navy carried out multiple airstrikes against Iranian-led militias, including Kataib Hezbollah, following the deaths of several private contractors and coalition troops. The militias were quick to respond, launching multiple assaults to capture the United States embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone. Although they ultimately failed to capture or injure any State Department personnel, the militias successfully penetrated the facility's protective walls and wreaked havoc on the compounds grounds.
At the start of 2020, the United States targeted the mastermind behind the militias operation: Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps command Qassem Soleimani. General Soleimani's death brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war, and trapped Iraq in the middle. Refusing to be outdone, Iran launched missiles against bases in Iraq housing US troops from its own territory. Thankfully for both sides, no servicemen were killed, and as such, a larger conflict was averted.
Although Iran and the United States stepped down when presented with the reality of high-intensity conflict, their dispute continues behind the scenes in the gray zone. Hisham al-Hashimi, a powerful and well respected Iraqi security analyst in the west, was assassinated by a suspected Kataib Hezbollah gunman last week. Following the extrajudicial killing, a spokesman for KH made clear that continued aggression by the Iraqi government would not be tolerated. If the two sides continue down the warpath, violence may increase throughout the country and open the door to a resurgence of the Islamic State.