Failed US policy in Iraq serves Iran and ISIS, threatens American troops
DUBAI - Washington’s efforts to degrade and defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) by building a strong and unified Iraqi army backed by national guards made up of Sunni tribesmen are failing due to an opposing Iranian agenda, which envisions Iraq remaining weak and divided.
US officials have repeatedly said they want the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to pursue national reconciliation and build a unified armed force to fight alongside Sunni Iraqi tribesmen.
Ever since the US invasion of Iraq, Washington has invested heavily in building the Iraqi military, and it now has redeployed about 3,450 US troops in the country to train the Iraqi army and support its forces in the war against ISIS.
However, US plans do not seem to be going well largely due to the effectiveness of Tehran’s strategy aimed at weakening the Iraqi military and strengthening Shia militias it has helped arm and train to be more efficient fighting forces than Iraq’s military.
Iraqi political parties allied with Iran dominate the parliament and have undermined all policies and initiatives aimed at enhancing reconciliation with the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
It is largely believed that the alienation of Iraq’s Sunnis has greatly contributed to the rise of ISIS and its ability to occupy one-third of Iraq.
According to US officials, who asked not to be named, Iran “has played a negative role” in Iraq’s achieving national reconciliation.
“Iran wants to see Iraq stay weak and divided and controlled by its allied Shia parties in order to prevent Iraq from once again being a strong foe on its borders,” one American official said.
Iran suffered severe losses in the 1980-88 war against Iraq and Tehran’s policy since then has been to weaken its Arab neighbour.
Abadi promised US President Barack Obama that he would end the policies of his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki that led to divisions within the country and the subsequent rise of ISIS.
However, Abadi has failed to fulfil his promise of establishing a force of national guards made up of Iraqi Sunni tribesmen or build a unified Iraqi armed forces. Instead a powerful Iranian-backed Shia militia known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) has evolved.
The US-led international alliance is even working indirectly with the Iranian-led PMF in combating ISIS by providing it with air support.
“The PMF is the only force fighting ISIS effectively on the ground in Iraq,” said one US official, justifying American cooperation with the Shia militias.
It is worth pointing out that the United States has sent mixed signals about the Iraqi forces.
US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on May 24th criticised the Iraqi military by saying it showed “no will to fight” in abandoning Ramadi.
Two days later, US Vice-President Joe Biden praised the Iraqi military, saying it made “enormous sacrifices” and displayed “bravery” in fighting ISIS. Shortly afterwards, Washington decided to supply the Iraqi military with 1,000 anti-tank missiles and ordered the deployment of 450 additional troops to Iraq to train its military.
Many analysts see the seemingly contradictory US policies in Iraq as evidence of rapprochement with Iran ahead of the widely anticipated deal with Tehran over its nuclear programme. The Obama administration seems to believe Shia Iran is the best ally in the war on Sunni extremists of al-Qaeda and ISIS.
However, US policies in Iraq are undermining the war on terrorism as well as the effort to unify the country and could place American troops in harm’s way. To some, it looks as if the United States is siding with the Shia in the current sectarian conflict in the region.
Many former and current US military commanders who served in Iraq have asserted that the only way to defeat ISIS is to arm and equip Sunni tribesmen and have them lead the fight against the terrorist group.
Using Iranian-backed Shia militiamen in the war against Sunni extremists will gain ISIS more supporters from Sunnis around the world.
Investing heavily in the PMF while neglecting the Iraqi military and ignoring the Sunni tribesmen will worsen the sectarian divide in the country, prolong the war on ISIS and consolidate Tehran’s influence in the country.
If rapprochement with Iran fails for any reason, the US troops in Iraq will become hostage to the PMF’s ability to target them, the same way the Shia militias did before the Obama administration withdrew most of its forces nearly four years ago. However, if detente with Iran succeeds, US troops will become the target of angry Sunni extremists.
Pledging more American troops to Iraq before seeing the Iraqi government clearly commit to a policy of true national reconciliation free of Iranian influence is a recipe for disaster.