The Dutch send troops to Iraq to counter unpredictable militias

The Dutch are sending troops to Iraq – to protect other troops there. Against ISIS? That too. But primarily because of the unpredictability of Iraqi militias that are under the influence of Iran.

The Netherlands is sending soldiers to Iraq to protect NATO’s military advisors in Iraq. It is an additional contribution to the NATO mission there, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Foreign Development and Justice report in a letter to Parliament.

From the 1st of January, an infantry company of 145 soldiers will be working in Iraq at the request of Iraq. They will be tasked with protecting advisors and staff officers who are there to strengthen the Iraqi security sector, a mission of about 25 people that will be extended until July 2025. By sending the troops, the Netherlands is expanding its military involvement in Iraq once again.

Only as recently as May, the 120 Dutch soldiers who protected the airport of the Kurdistan capital Erbil returned home. Estonia took over their mission; only a few advisors for the Peshmerga troops remained. For Iraq is supposed to gradually be able to manage by itself the fight against the terror group ISIS, according to the Defense at the time.

However, the fight against ISIS, which between 2014 and 2017 occupied a third of Iraq, is still one of the reasons for sending troops. “Iraq is located in a very unstable region on the border with Europe. Further instability can lead to renewed conflict and a possible resurgence of the terrorist threat,” according to the letter.


The threat, six years after ISIS was declared defeated in Iraq, is far from gone. There are attacks and bombings several times a week; often, Iraqi soldiers are the victims. The attraction of ISIS’s ideology has not faded; this week in the Syrian Deir-Alzour, ISIS flags were carried along at a protest against the burning of the Quran.

That is why Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) continues, the international mission against ISIS, in which the Netherlands remains involved. Twelve Dutch officers are involved in the training of Iraqi Special Forces, and five are doing roughly the same for the Peshmerga in the Kurdistan Region.

For the Dutch military, these kinds of missions are an essential training element. After all, in peacetime, for an army there is little practical experience to gain in its own country. Hence, hundreds of Dutch soldiers have been in Iraq over the past few years. When I spoke with some of them in Erbil during the war against ISIS, I heard that they even provided first-aid training, as too many soldiers were bleeding to death on their way to a hospital.

The Kurdistan government was happy with the help, as I saw when (then) Prime Minister Mark Rutte visited the Dutch troops in Erbil in 2016. He and the (then) Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani posed with the troops in a photo opportunity after words of appreciation were exchanged from both sides.


For the rest of Iraq accepting this kind of help is a far a more complicated matter. That is why the letter is carefully formulated, for part of the authorities in Iraq do not want foreign troops in their country – or at least not American troops. Two years ago, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution to expel all foreign military from the country – in retaliation for the deadly attack on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. The collaboration with all those troops in the fight against ISIS was to be terminated.

That forced the then Prime Minister Kadhimi to perform a strange balancing act, as he knew that the Iraqi army would quickly lose to ISIS again without the help of foreign troops. The agreement was that only military who had an advisory role, or were assisting in the training of the Iraqi army and military police, would stay.

When US President Obama removed all American troops in 2011, that soon resulted in the resurgence of Al-Qaeda, leading up to the appearance of ISIS. No one wants a repetition of that. Thus, a solution was found that was partly optical, as the Americans still have bases in Iraq. The most important is Ain Al-Asad in the Arbar province. And American soldiers remain stationed at the Erbil airport and at the new American consulate on the outskirts of the city.

Opposition to their presence comes from Iran, and from the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Ain al-Assad is regularly targeted by their rockets. For example, in January 2020, as retaliation for the drone attack on Soleimani, but also repeatedly afterwards. The Americans at the airport in Erbil also became a target of Iranian rockets. Things became quieter since the current government took office.


Iran has a significant influence on the current government in Baghdad, which is backed by pro-Iranian Shi’ite hardliners. Yet, the current Prime Minister Sudani recently stated that he does not want to completely lose American troops. A balance is needed, he emphasized.

The fact that he is stepping on quite a few toes was evident last week from a statement by the commander of one of the most pro-Iranian militias, Kataib Hezbollah, which, by the way, is on the American list of terrorist groups. The commander said that the government should now really start sending those American troops away, or his group will resume its attacks on them. Other militias, whose political branches are in power, keep voicing opposition to the Americans too.

Upon his inauguration, Sudani must have realized that he would be caught between the fires, but did he know exactly what legacy from his predecessors he would have to deal with? What the Americans threatened with, when the Iraqi parliament demanded the departure of American troops in 2020? Namely: that the US Department of Treasury would seize the Iraqi dollar reserves?

Since 2003, these reserves have been in American hands when it was decided that the Iraqi oil revenues would be held in US dollars in an account (by name of the Central Bank of Iraq) at the Federal Reserve in New York. Since then, Iraqi governments every month again must ask the Americans politely to release dollars.

However, at the end of 2022, the US government decided to allow Iraq the withdrawal of considerably fewer dollars – to force it to take measures to prevent money laundering and the export of dollars to Iran. This led to massive dollar shortages in Iraq, a higher exchange rate for the dinar, and financial problems for many Iraqis.


On the other hand, Iraq has just about become a province of Iran, for example for its dependence on Iranian gas for power generation. This, in turn, leads the Iraqi government to beg Washington to release Iranian funds so that Tehran will resume that essential gas supply to Iraq.

A recent example of Iran’s influence in the neighboring country is the kidnapping of a Russian-Israeli researcher affiliated with an American university. Elizabeth Tsurkov was conducting research in Baghdad on Iraqi Shiite militias and in March was kidnapped by one of them. As was only recently confirmed by Israel, which identified Kataib Hezbollah as the culprit.

It has since emerged that Tsurkov was kidnapped on the orders of Iran, which accuses her of espionage and is trying to use her as a pawn in an exchange for one its own people who is in Israeli hands. And Baghdad plays no role at all in the negotiations that have started about someone who was definitely kidnapped in Iraq.

The Dutch ministers don’t specify in their letter to the Parliament why they are sending troops to protect other foreign soldiers in Iraq. However, this must be far less about ISIS than about the growing influence of Iran and the increasing power of pro-Iranian militias. Because they not only make the situation in Iraq unstable, but above all unpredictable. As the attacks on American bases in the past as well as the recent kidnapping of Tsurkov clearly demonstrate.

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