HOW many of you reading this I wonder had heard of Qasem Soleimani before this latest crisis between the US and Iran? How many too had heard of commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis or Hashd al-Shaabi, Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU)?

I ask simply by way of highlighting how difficult it can be to navigate the labyrinthine workings and myriad groups that inhabit the political landscape of the Middle East, making any understanding of it difficult to say the least.

It’s especially important to bear this in mind given recent events during which so much crucial detail has been lost of late in the high octane and emotive coverage as the region again appeared to be plunging into all-out war.

As the dust settles – a little at least – now is perhaps as good a time as any to take a more dispassionate and considered view of what has unfolded between the US and Iran as well as the trajectory in which relations between these two historically implacable foes might now be heading.

As good a place to start is in considering where it leaves Iraq. For while events of the past week have seen a face off between Washington and Tehran, it was actually in Iraq that the creep towards war began and on Iraqi soil where salvoes were actually exchanged between US and Iranian forces.

Let’s not forget that it was following an attack on a US base near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk and laying siege to the American Embassy in the capital Baghdad by supporters of Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militia groups like Asaib ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, that things began to spiral out of control.

These events in turn were followed by the assassination, again on Iraqi soil, of Quds Force leader Soleimani and deputy chief of the PMU Muhandis outside Baghdad airport bringing the crisis to a head.

It’s said that the walls of the US Embassy in Baghdad were still burning and pro-Iranian groups chanting threats outside, when Iraq’s prime minister tried to explain the situation to US President Donald Trump.

“Iraq is between friends who are 5000 miles away from us and a neighbour we’ve had for 5000 years,” Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi reportedly said in a New Year’s Day telephone call with Trump according to a close adviser, Abdul Hussain al-Hunain, quoted in the New York Times. “We cannot change geography and we cannot change history, and this is the reality in Iraq,” Mahdi told the US president.

And what a reality that is. With Iraq caught between a rock and hard place, it’s anybody’s guess the extent to which Trump personally understood Mahdi’s dilemma, even if many US diplomatic, military and intelligence officials would be more than familiar with Iraq’s quandary.

For so long now it has been Baghdad that has lain at the epicentre of the Cold War between Washington and Tehran.

As that war now heats up it’s almost certain that long-suffering Iraq will be the territory on which this struggle is played out in the future.

Nowhere perhaps with the possible exception of Syria, are the contradictions of US foreign policy in the Middle East more apparent than in Iraq. And no-one perhaps personified those contradictions more than Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units that an American military Reaper drone eviscerated along with Qasem Soleimani on January 3.

For here was an Iraqi politician and paramilitary leader willing to do Tehran’s bidding in his home country and long committed to establishing a Shiite religious state in Iraq.

Indeed so committed was Muhandis that he was key among a number of Iraqis who left to fight on the side of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

As far as the Americans are concerned he is also considered to be the architect of the bombing of the American and French embassies in Kuwait in 1983.

Then in the power vacuum that developed after the death of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2006, Muhandis founded Kataib Hezbollah, an anti-US insurgency movement responsible for numerous American casualties, enabling the US authorities to designate Muhandis and his insurgency as “terrorist” groups.

Yet despite such an infamous anti-American track record, this was the same man who, before his assassination by a US drone, found himself fighting alongside US forces when Washington embarked on retaking Iraq from the jihadists of the Islamic State Group (IS).

As international affairs writer Joshua Keating recently pointed out in the online magazine Slate, at one stage this put US forces in the uncomfortable position of fighting on the same side as, and in some cases even providing air cover for, Muhandis’s militias that had been killing them just a few years earlier. It was in short a classic Middle Eastern case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Today, irrespective of Muhandis death, it will doubtless be his Iraqi militias or PMU’s backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Quds Force that will find themselves in the vanguard of taking the fight to the Americans in the region now that the threat of all out war has receded.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may well be patient in

considering any retaliation, but the same cannot necessarily be said of members of the IRGC now led by Soleimani’s successor, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, which still wants to exact pain equal to their leader’s loss.

But any mobilisation of the PMUs in Iraq presupposes of course that US forces will continue to stay in the country. On Friday Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi made a formal request to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to set up a mechanism for American troops to withdraw from Iraq.

Before this, the Iraqi parliament had also issued a non-binding call for the estimated 5000 US troops to leave the country in which they have been embroiled for so long.

But not all Iraqi politicians view a possible US departure as something to welcome. One Sunni member of parliament referring to Iran summed up concerns when he asked: “Are our neighbours our friends or our masters ... are we going to hand the country’s wealth and decisions into the hands of neighbouring countries?”

Which begs the question as to whether a US troop withdrawal from Iraq is indeed a serious possibility and what the wider consequences of that would it be were it to happen.

Certainly among many hardliners in Iran the departure of US forces from the Middle East has been a long-standing and core foreign policy demand, but the consequences of US troops going is just as unpalatable and worrying to many in the region as them staying.

Seen from an Iraqi perspective it would leave Baghdad even more at the mercy of Tehran’s influence, something that has increasingly incensed many Iraqis for some time and resulted in protests on the country’s streets and growing sense of nationalism.

The same can be seen in neighbouring Lebanon where many are weary of Iran’s meddling through its powerful Shia ally and proxy Hezbollah.

THE departure of US troops from Iraq would also threaten the Kurds in their semi autonomous region in the north of the country. They would not only find themselves vulnerable to the Iraqi government with whom there is no love lost, but also the Iranian backed PMU militias.

During one recent visit to the region I saw for myself how in some areas what are effectively territorial frontlines exist between these Iranian backed militias and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.

It would take very little for tensions between these two sides to erupt into open warfare.

The potential absence of US troops also raises the very pressing issue of the counterterrorism fight against cadres of Islamic State (IS) fighters who since their routing in neighbouring Syria have regrouped in Iraq and are already presenting a fresh threat to stability in the country.

“Among the biggest legacies of the Americans in Iraq has been the training and funding of Iraq’s counterterrorism service,” says Professor Peter Neumann, founding director of the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

“It is the country’s only counterterrorism force that is multi-ethnic and largely uncorrupted. In comparison, many of the other militias who have fought the Islamic State are controlled by Iran,” Neumann told the Washington Post last week.

The newspaper also highlighted another crucial reason why the White House is unlikely to countenance the idea of a US troop pulling out, notably the likelihood that Russia might fill the vacuum and once again outmanoeuvre the Americans in the region.

Should Americans forces in Iraq remain dug in, as realpolitik suggests, then no doubt Iran will only redouble its efforts to oust them, meaning the latest crisis will continue to play out albeit perhaps with different parameters.

Following the killing of such a prominent official as Soleimani, Iran knows any attack that even its proxies launch could trigger another American strike.

While some among the more hawkish elements within the Trump administration say the president has restored the “big stick” deterrence that some American enemies had begun to doubt, others suggest Iran’s apparent backing off has more to do with its leadership’s being disorientated and unable to read Trump’s thinking.

“Trump is the first US president whom the Iranians worry they may not be able to out-crazy,” wryly observed New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman.

Writing a few days ago Friedman outlined how he believed Soleimani’s successors would now be aware of having to operate with much greater discretion and security concerns than Soleimani himself, “who thought he was attack-proof.”

But says Friedman America’s capacity to “out-crazy” the Iranians is ultimately an illusion.

“We cannot afford to be assassinating every bad guy who crosses us. It would give licence to other countries – like Vladimir Putin’s Russia – to do the same to his opponents and invite others to start targeting our leaders,” insisted the veteran Middle East correspondent.

This weekend as talk of all-out war eased, the headlines still reflected the terrible consequences resulting from miscalculation in the heat of the moment and threat of war. After maintaining for days that there was no evidence that one of its missiles had struck a Boeing 737-800 minutes after it took off from Tehran on Wednesday, Iran admitted yesterday its military had mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian plane killing all 176 aboard.

Khamenei, who until now has been silent about the crash, said information should be made public and called it a “disastrous mistake”.

And there perhaps lies the greatest danger in the future for US-Iran tensions, the capacity for either side to make another calamitous mistaking from which there is no backtracking.

Some observers insist that the greatest danger of this lies not in Tehran but in Washington where the president remains a loose cannon alongside the Iranians who are more likely to be patient, calculating, tactical and to some extent predictable.

Donald Trump, they warn, is none of those things.

Warning of the explosive potential that still lingers from Iranian proxy groups across the region one US counterterrorism official told Time Magazine that: “the chatter continues, the dark web is still buzzing, people are still active, and the weapons are all still there.”

For the moment the shooting has stopped and the threat from both sides of unleashing their “big guns” has receded. But, as I mentioned at the start of this article, navigating the murky and labyrinthine political landscape of the Middle East is a daunting task alone even without making predictions as to its reshaping.

The US and Iran might have stepped back from the brink, but both have again sidestepped into the shadow war that has characterised this conflict these past 40 years. Only a real optimist could think both sides will stay there for long.