Islamic State: Washington and Baghdad “Don’t Get It”

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.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. Sure, blame the Iraqi mess on the Iraqis. The US had nothing to do with it? Actually it did, and the US inaction recently (as before) and Dempsey’s saying that Ramadi doesn’t matter is completely in line with US policy and its support of ISIS, as described here.

  2. The Iraqi Sunnis are ideologically divided. Many just prefer Sunni ISIS to the Iraqi government dominated by the Shias that they despise and have oppressed for decades.

    If the West arms the Sunnis, the weapons may end up in ISIS hands. We have seen that phenomenon in Syria.
    The most logical solution is to allow ISIS to occupy the Sunni areas and let the Sunnis there discover the ‘joys’ of living under ISIS. A few years of such governing will make them beg for the return of the Iraqi central government even if the Shias are in power.

    The same applies to Syria. In a few months in Al Raqqa ISIS has disgusted the population and it is slowly coming to terms that finally anything is better than ISIS.
    In Egypt we saw that reaction in less than a year..
    It seems that disgruntled Arab Sunnis need to taste real Sunni Islamism to beg for the return of a secular government, even if it is corrupted..

  3. I do wonder, will Iraq be the biggest C-F of the United States Adventurism? Or will it be the Bush led war on terrorism?

  4. Looks like the main backers of ISIS, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, will not accept defeat and have redoubled their propping up of ISIS.

    This article is right that Washington and Baghdad don’t get it. They must go to the root of the trouble. After 9/11 Saudis were shielded by Washington. If the truth had come out, if Washington had admitted it, there would have been massive outrage by Americans and war cries for action. It didn’t happen. The American outrage was managed and harnessed to go after Iraq and Saddam. Saudis never paid a price and didn’t even get a scare. The 9/11 commission’s report was suppressed and the compliant media conveniently took its marching orders from the war party to go after the low hanging fruit of Iraq. Feeling immune from any consequences or even slightest criticism, the Saudis have become the biggest source of trouble in the Middle East. They are exporting Wahabism, terrorism and funding the toppling governments in the region. Admittedly, none of those governments are angels but if you’re going to topple a nasty POS like Saddam and you don’t know what you’re doing you’re going to replace one monster with a much bigger monster, and that’s what we’re witnesing. The region is ablaze and Saudis, now joined by emboldened Qatar, Turkey and UAE are being allowed to pour gas over fire.

  5. Reinforcing my comment above about the US complicity with ISIS, the latter has just held a victory parade into Ramadi with many vehicles under clear skies, and not a coalition aircraft in sight.
    Also Levant Report has published a document from 2012 —
    2012 Defense Intelligence Agency document:
    West will facilitate rise of Islamic State “in order to isolate the Syrian regime”

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