What Rutte and Sudani discussed in The Hague

Soon, the Netherlands will lead the NATO mission in Iraq. At a time when the anti-ISIS coalition is being down-scaled, while pro-Iranian Shiite militias pose a new threat.

‘The Netherlands and Iraq will continue to commit themselves to preventing escalation of the conflict in Gaza,’ was the last sentence of the tweet Dutch Prime Minister Rutte sent out into the world after the visit of his Iraqi counterpart Sudani to The Hague. Yet, without the consequences of the Gaza war, this visit would have looked very different.

Why would the Iraqi Prime Minister travel to a small country like the Netherlands at a time when a heated debate is going on whether the 2500 American troops should stay in Iraq or not? And at the same time, while both the Dutch ministers of defense and foreign affairs were recently in Baghdad?

Not because his Minister of Foreign Affairs Fuad Hussein has Dutch nationality. Not because the Dutch head of the UN mission in Iraq, Jeannine Plasschaert described the situation due to the continuous attacks on American troops by Shiite militias as ‘on a knife’s edge’.

But definitely because Baghdad fears being dragged into the conflict between the US and Iran, as Fuad Hussein indicated to the BBC. And the Netherlands will lead the NATO mission in Iraq from May.


What is the connection between those two? Let’s go back to the facts. Pro-Iranian militias have carried out over 170 attacks on American military personnel in Iraq and Syria since the start of the Gaza crisis in October. Influenced by their patrons in Iran, they demand that the US, which they hold partly responsible for the many Palestinian deaths, leaves Iraq.

The Americans are there at the invitation of Baghdad however, which in 2014 needed help to stop the advance of the terror group ISIS. The active status of the American military in Iraq was changed in 2021, and now they only have a role as trainers and advisors. Pro-Iranian militias see this as a cosmetic change though, and want them out completely.

And the other hand, Kurds and Sunnis fear that this will also remove the balance that still offers some counterweight to the influence of Tehran. As Hussein put it: ‘The majority of Iraqi people do not want to have foreign forces on Iraqi soil. Those who have been invited (the Americans), we will do it through negotiation. And those who have not been invited must leave, we hope also through negotiation.’

By this he refers to the Iranian Quds Force that commands Iraqi militias – even though these are officially part of the Iraqi Defense system. How much they are on an Iranian leash became very apparent when on February 4, the attacks on American troops in Iraq suddenly ceased. Only a few days after Quds leader Esmail Qaani had spoken with representatives of those militias at Baghdad Airport.

For the observant readers: at the airport, indeed. After all, Qaani’s predecessor Soleimani was killed in a car on his way to Baghdad by an American drone strike.


Qaani warned of the deadly effect the attacks could have on the militias’ commanders, if the US were to retaliate for deadly casualties among their troops in Iraq. Only for that reason, an American retaliatory attack shortly thereafter remained unanswered.

The fact that Baghdad is already working on a scenario for departure also played a role. There will be talks with the Americans about downsizing the anti-ISIS coalition, and about the future security relationship between the two countries. While the Pentagon made clear these talks are not about an American departure from Iraq, Washington threatened at the same time to stall them as long as there was no end to the attacks on American military personnel.

The talks have since resumed, but nobody seems to be in a hurry. For the dilemma remains that after a departure of the Americans, there will be no counterweight against Iran. So, a different solution must be sought.

There seems to be no disagreement about the fact that the anti-ISIS mission needs to be down-scaled. Sudani also hinted at it in The Hague. Yet the fight against ISIS in Syria is far from over, and the Americans need to refresh and supply their troops there from Iraq. The Shiite argument that their militias will act in case of a new invasion of ISIS from Syria, gives many Iraqis the creeps.


And that’s where the NATO mission in Iraq comes into view. It has been there since 2018, also because of ISIS, and already has an advisory and training function. The NATO is generally viewed positively in Iraq; it was involved in ending the war to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991. From May, this mission will be led by Dutch General Cas Schreurs.

Although this is speculation, perhaps the role of NATO can be expanded while at the same time the American troop presence is down-scaled. By placing more American troops under NATO command, for example.

Foremost is that Iraq itself must try to get the militias ‘back in the box’. Many in Baghdad are aware of this, especially because two of the most prominent have recently come into conflict with each other. Supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam militia and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq are at each other’s throats in Babylon.

Shortly after the appointment of a member of Asaib as the governor of Babylon, a local commander of Saraya al-Salam disappeared. He was murdered, and it is thought by supporters of Asaib. That is a pro-Iranian militia, while al-Sadr’s positions itself as nationalist. Elsewhere in Iraq, too, there are tensions between militias.

At home

The Kurdish president Nechirvan Barzani complained this week about attacks by these militias on the Kurdish peshmerga, even though both are part of the Iraqi defense system. That situation is even more difficult than the one with ISIS, he said, ‘because the threat is not outside, the threat is inside your own home, the threat comes from a group that receives money from the Iraqi Government itself. (..) You don’t know how to deal with them. The battlefield is not visible, nor is it clear where he is fighting you from.’

That is not a situation to be left with on your own. The Kurds consider themselves good friends of Washington and depend on the Americans a lot. And on the Sunni side, the coin seems to have turned: the call for the departure of the once so hated Americans has quieted. For who provides a counterweight against the militias? It could well be that the NATO mission will become more important than it already is.

General Schreurs, who according to Defense is known ‘as analytically strong, energetic, and driven, and is praised for the way he makes and maintains contact’, can prepare himself for all this. And Mark Rutte too, if he indeed becomes the new Secretary-General of NATO. That much was at least clear from Sudani’s visit.

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