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As the United States and Iran traded airstrikes in Iraq this month, Behnam Benoka made middle-of-the-night pastoral visits. “It’s important I am available to meet with them in their homes at this hour,” the Syriac Catholic priest said of parishioners when I reached him by phone on Jan. 7. “We wake in the night due to the situation, and people are worried.”
About two hours later, Iran launched a retaliatory barrage of missiles. Several landed, without casualties, at U.S. military installations 30 miles from the town of Bartella where Benoka lives. It was the first significant counterattack since a pre-dawn drone strike by the United States on Jan. 3 killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, his Iraqi deputy Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, plus three others associated with the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
Like Americans, Benoka and his fellow Iraqis have urgent questions about whether the new tension in Iraq will lead to another war. Unlike many Americans, though, long experience has trained them to recognize real threats when they see them. Benoka and his parishioners faced the Islamic State in 2014, but it was a member of Soleimani’s PMF militia who put a gun to his face in 2018.
Benoka cared for his displaced parish and ran a medical clinic that saw 500 patients a day in Iraqi Kurdistan while ISIS occupied his town. When he and other residents returned to Bartella following its liberation, they found a wreck of burned churches, pulverized storefronts, and tunneled-under houses. Maintaining the fragile security was the PMF.
Soleimani helped form the militias to bolster the Iraqi army in its campaign to defeat ISIS starting in 2016. While the West dragged its feet to secure liberated areas and help rebuild communities, Soleimani worked with Iraqis to deploy PMF units—part of the 62-year-old commander’s grand strategy to spread Iran’s brand of Islamic influence across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Soleimani brutalized multitudes, earning U.S. designation as a terrorist in 2005 and sanctions in 2011.
The Christians and Yazidis who suffered genocide at the hands of ISIS faced new harassment with the Iranian-led militias: PMF checkpoints even now control roads and most access to what once were their homelands.
The PMF, known locally as the Hashd al-Shaabi, raised flags and banners depicting Iran’s mullahs at the entrance to Bartella. They moved local Shiites, known as Shabaks, into residential areas and urged boycotts of Christian businesses. They blocked access to churches at Easter, and fired on Benoka’s St. George’s Church during a service in December 2018. Benoka walked boldly into the street to demand the gunmen stop shooting. One grabbed him and held a handgun to his face before releasing him.
Such threats are the leading reason only a fraction of those ISIS displaced have returned to their communities. The militias “put our existence in peril,” Benoka said.
The United States under George W. Bush dismantled the Iraqi army and under Barack Obama quit the long effort to reconstruct it. That left Baghdad’s leadership, mostly Shiites we helped to power, more and more captive to Shiite Iran.
The Trump administration stepped up the campaign to defeat ISIS and has redirected some aid to help revive communities like Bartella. The decision to take out Soleimani was bold and at the same time grounded, the president (and the U.S. military) showing a steady hand in the face of growing belligerence by Iran. With Soleimani’s killing, Democrats missed an opportunity to show they can be statesmen in return.
But all of it may have come too late to check Iran’s inroads in Iraq, or to save communities like Bartella. The local Hashd al-Shaabi unit, with its tanks and heavy weapons, temporarily pulled back from the town under threat of further U.S. airstrikes. That left 24 members of a lightly armed Christian militia protecting Bartella. “What they have is no comparison to what we have,” said Benoka. “They can kill us in one hour.”