by Wayne White
President Obama, under pressure to hasten the recovery of Iraqi territory held by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), has opted to allow the participation of Iranian-backed, anti-Sunni Arab Shi’a militias. He stipulated that they must answer to the Iraqi government, but this means precious little in the breach concerning atrocities. Acquiescing to the employment of Shi’a militias also reduces the ability of Iraq and the Coalition to lure Sunni Arabs under IS rule to join with Iraqi forces against IS. Meanwhile, some critics have revived the familiar canards that this administration lost Iraq, undermined Iraqi democracy, or could have wielded vital influence had it kept US troops in Iraq far longer.
The administration has stepped back from Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s March 30 remarks declaring Shi’a militias must be excluded from Iraqi military operations. Washington compelled many militias to quit the battle in Tikrit when the US conditioned air support and other cooperation on their withdrawal. Yet, during Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s visit to the US this week, President Obama backed off this demand, indicating on April 14 that militias could fight alongside the army if they were “answerable to the Iraqi government” and “subordinated to its chain of command.”
To casual observers, these strictures could seem reassuring. But in reality, they are not. Baghdad lacks sufficient personnel to monitor the notoriously brutal Shi’a militias on the front lines. Additionally, those to whom the militias would answer are themselves primarily Shi’a (such as Iraqi Army or police cadres). Many army or government officials are likely to turn a blind eye to militia atrocities, approve of such behavior themselves, or, even if more high-minded, hesitate to report infractions for fear of retribution from these powerful militias.
Abadi Increasingly Questionable
Abadi, a Shi’a, is also suspect. He launched his March Tikrit offensive without notifying Washington, didn’t request US air support, and used a force consisting mostly of Shi’a militiamen under Iranian tactical direction. This almost certainly was an attempt to end-run his American allies. Abadi apparently wanted to see if he could make major gains against IS without having to heed US concerns about the long-lasting societal damage resulting from a heavily sectarian campaign of reconquest.
Whether or not Abadi personally wanted to proceed in that manner, he is subject to intense Shi’a pressure. In sum, he does seem to be a significant improvement over his shamelessly Shi’a sectarian predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki (who ignored Washington’s entreaties not to exclude, persecute, jail, and even kill Sunni Arabs). After all, most of the officials around Abadi, aside from a number of corrupt political generals that he fired, are the same ones who governed alongside Maliki. Meanwhile, the same parliament is in place, with its hefty clutch of members who maintain hostile views toward Sunni Arabs and reject any major concessions toward them.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Abadi has not made the specific, credible commitments to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs needed to lure them back to the government’s side. Perhaps vaguely positive statements are all he is capable of extracting from a Baghdad still so dominated by much the same crowd that supported Maliki’s wholesale sectarian abuses. The US wanted such assurances very badly, but nine months have gone by without them. And Sunni Arabs know the difference between empty government utterances and the real thing.
Obama Under Pressure Too
Meanwhile, President Obama is also under pressure to crush IS swiftly. Much of Washington’s political elite has hyped the IS threat to the point where the White House is under the crunch to show better results or continue to suffer intense criticism of the president’s resistance to combat troops on the ground and his conduct of the air war. And when IS now has Iraqi forces fighting desperately to retain the al-Anbar Governate capital of Ramadi west of Baghdad as well as Iraq’s largest oil refinery at Baiji farther north, the pressure from Congress and other quarters for urgent measures could not be more intense.
In her April 7 Politico article “How Obama Abandoned Democracy in Iraq,” Emma Sky argues, in effect, that the US could have prevented Iraq’s collapse under Maliki. Attacks on the competence of administration officials aside, Sky’s argument that Washington blew a real opportunity to orchestrate Maliki’s defeat in the shaping of Iraq’s government in 2010 overlooks the nasty brew of Iraqi internal politics at that time. Anointing Maliki rival Iyad al-Alawi as prime minister back then based on Alawi’s rather limited base seemed, in fact, pretty iffy. Some of that doubt comes through in the article’s last sentence by way of former Sunni Arab Maliki cabinet minister Rafi al-Issawi who admits that “we might not have succeeded.”
To characterize American influence—compared to that of hardened sectarian Shi’a politicians, powerful Shi’a militias, and their Iranian backers—as so weighty in 2010 is an exaggeration. Even in 2009 when the US still had over 100,000 troops in Iraq (though restricted to their bases during the latter part of that year), US influence plummeted.
By 2010, Maliki had assembled plenty of political and security heft, and already used it to begin wrecking the Sunni Arab “Awakening” (and trust) that might have led to an acceptable Sunni Arab political buy-in. It was evident from the rapid collapse of Alawi’s polyglot coalition in the 2010 political horse-trading for prime minister that it was fragile. Though many believe it should, tens of thousands of troops inside Iraq in 2009-2010 simply did not translate into a dominant amount of American political clout.
All told, the Obama administration’s track record on Iraq is vastly better than that of the George W. Bush administration. The years 2003-2008 set the stage for most of Iraq’s sectarian problems today. However, if President Obama signs off on the “liberation” of much of Sunni Arab Iraq by Shi’a militias, that is likely to be the worst mistake made since those of his predecessor. Expelling IS from Iraq will take quite some time, and taking ugly shortcuts in pursuit of greater gains up front are far too risky. Also, if President Obama continues down this path, he would share responsibility for the many resultant atrocities and a potentially shattered Iraq well beyond the expulsion of the Islamic State.