by Wayne White
Since Baghdad’s recapture of the central Iraqi city of Tikrit, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has hit back hard. IS broke into Iraq’s encircled Baiji refinery earlier this month and lately has seized Ramadi. As we have warned since March 9, if Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi continues to shun a sweeping political offer of inclusion and fair treatment for Iraq’s embittered Sunni Arabs, key Sunni Arab tribes cannot be stripped of their loyalty or submission to IS. Washington plus its Western and regional allies must drive home to Baghdad that without such a political fix the struggle against IS in Iraq will be slow, erratic, exceedingly destructive, and needlessly bloody.
In late 2014 and early 2015, Kurdish and Iraqi forces rebounded from last summer’s shocking IS advances and began chewing away at IS’s holdings. The Kurds drove IS back from their doorstep and sliced across northern Iraq to reach the lost Yazidi city of Sinjar, cutting one major IS line of communications. Together with Iraqi forces (and Shi’a militias), the Kurds helped drive IS from most of its holdings in Diyala Governate in northeastern Iraq. Meanwhile, Baghdad pushed IS away from Baghdad and out of dangerous IS gains south of the capital.
At the same time, a number of important government-controlled areas behind IS lines in al-Anbar Governate, plus the major refinery complex north of Baghdad, held out gamely against repeated IS assaults. Most likely, resistance has been stiffened more from fear of being overrun and executed than Baghdad’s fitful efforts at reinforcement and resupply. Another critical element was aid from a scattering of armed elements drawn from some Sunni Arab tribes also trapped within IS’s domain still willing to stand up to the bloodthirsty, abusive extremists.
More recently, the picture has become clouded by an ominous IS rebound. Soon after Iraqi forces (the most important of which were Shi’a militias) finished wresting the key city of Tikrit north of Baghdad from IS early last month, IS struck back.
For the first time, some weeks ago, they succeeded in penetrating the perimeter of Iraq’s largest refinery complex at Baiji north of Tikrit, seizing a large portion of the facility. They simultaneously launched operations to gain ground in and around Ramadi, a city of 700,000 and the al-Anbar Governate capital. Over the weekend, IS forces completed their conquest of Ramadi along with areas to the east of the city, reportedly executing a large number of military, police, and civilian prisoners, forcing more than 100,000 civilians to flee over the past month. Taking Ramadi is IS’s most significant gain since the summer of 2014.
The Failure of Abadi & Co
In his Sunni Arab outreach, Abadi has proven to be little more than a kinder, more user-friendly version of his abusive predecessor Nuri al-Maliki. Surrounded by many of the same intensely anti-Sunni Arab Shi’a politicians, Abadi has pleaded that he is willing to make major concessions, such as arming anti-IS Sunni Arab tribes, but cannot muster sufficient political support in Baghdad. It’s moot whether Abadi’s pleas are genuine or merely an excuse to mask his own anti-Sunni attitudes: the result is the same. One Sunni Arab politician told BBC’s Jim Muir recently that, effectively: “The process of empowering…Sunnis has not even begun.”
Angered by all this, the House Armed Services Committee produced a draft defense authorization bill on April 27 holding that “the Kurdish peshmerga, the Sunni tribal security forces with a national security mission, and the Iraqi Sunni National Guard be deemed a country” to facilitate direct US military aid. Twenty-five percent of military aid to Iraq would be designated for these forces. It also stipulated that unless Baghdad gave Sunni Arabs a greater political role, fleshed out the National Guard, and ended support for Shi’a militias, an even higher percentage would go to Sunni Arabs and Kurds (also being shortchanged).
The bill caused outrage within Baghdad’s Shi’a ruling elite. One Iraqi article connected the bill to Vice President Joe Biden’s suggestion, while senator, to divide Iraq along sectarian lines: “Biden’s project has become real and the knife is cutting our limbs.” Despite congressional and administration reassurances (plus a bill re-write), Iraqi critics and the parliament seethed. Abadi declared that such a policy would create “more divisions” between Iraq and the US.
Nonetheless, until Baghdad does start empowering and giving arms to Sunni Arabs willing to stand up to IS, Iraq’s battle to reclaim IS-occupied areas will be an awfully tough slog interrupted by reverses. In a worst-case scenario, it could even result in an unstable bloody stalemate with Sunni Arabs on one side facing Shi’a and Kurds on the other. And then there is government ineptitude: Ramadi’s beleaguered garrison held out grimly for 10 months, pleading desperately for sufficient reinforcements that never came.
Baghdad’s Wrongheaded Reaction to Ramadi
In light of the Iraqi government’s prior reliance on Shi’a militias for frontline troops, it comes as no surprise that Ramadi’s fall prompted 3,000 Hashid al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) Shi’a militiamen to set out for the Ramadi front via the nearby Iraqi-held Habbaniya area. Veteran “Kataib Hezbollah” militiamen came in a column of armored vehicles and civilian trucks mounting anti-aircraft machine guns and brandishing their own banners more noticeably than Iraqi flags.
Although often effective, such militias are notorious for human rights abuses against Sunni Arabs in contested areas. Human Rights Watch examined the “liberation” of the Amerli area south of Kirkuk last year as a case study in militia abuse. Widespread destruction in nearly 50 villages was “methodical and driven by revenge” aimed at sectarian cleansing. Looting was massive, and large numbers of inhabitants were abused, killed, or simply disappeared. Physical destruction was confirmed by satellite.
Despite IS’s own depredations, many Sunni Arabs under its control are understandably even more terrified of Shi’a militias. The powerful IS media machine has squeezed every possible ounce of impact from lurid reporting on Shi’a abuses, spreading dread among Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. The Iraqi government must turn dramatically toward cross-communal confidence-building through genuine Sunni Arab political outreach and arming Sunni Arab forces like what was done by the US during the so-called “Sunni Arab Awakening” in 2006-2009.
Throwing in Iranian-backed Shi’a militias as fire brigades for shoring up defenses as at Ramadi or spearheading offensives like the retaking of Tikrit can produce tactical triumphs, but amidst a backdrop of national strategic failure.
Stakes Couldn’t Be Higher
As we warned in mid-April, if the Obama administration goes along with attempting to “liberate” IS-held areas of Iraq mainly with Shi’a militias, Washington might, as fellow Iraq expert Michael Knights said back in February, help “defeat [IS], but lose Iraq in the process.” After wisely withholding air support during the Tikrit battle pending the withdrawal of Shi’a militias, the Obama administration quickly reversed itself. It acquiesced in the use of such militias if they were under Iraqi government command and oversight. However, with the bulk of Iraqi troops, police, and officials also Shi’a, the rigorous oversight needed to drastically reduce atrocities is simply not there.
US, Western, and regional allies must make military aid contingent on fielding a respectable Iraqi military force and phasing out Shi’a militias. Enough resources must be made available to greatly expand the training of Iraqi army cadres to help this work. However, only new alliances built on far greater trust between Baghdad and Sunni Arab tribes can generate sufficient combatants in a relatively short time. Too much precious time already has been lost.
Yet, if such a firm stand is not taken now, Washington will be supporting one side in what promises to be a ruthless, prolonged sectarian conflict. This will have serious consequences for what is left of the notion of a united “Iraq” as well as American credibility among its many Sunni Arab regional allies.