US lacks new policy ideas for Iraq
Although US officials are worried about the dysfunctional Iraqi government in the aftermath of the storming of parliament by angry citizens, President Barack Obama’s administration is pursuing more of the same: supporting Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, opposing any effort to create a federal state and trying to chip away at Islamic State territory in Iraq.
Knowing that Abadi was in trouble politically, US Vice-President Joe Biden travelled to Iraq on April 28th to underscore the administration’s support for Abadi while “encouraging Iraqi national unity and continued momentum in the fight” against the Islamic State (ISIS), according to a White House statement.
Soon after Biden left the country, the Iraqi parliament was ransacked by thousands of Iraqi citizens, most of whom were supporters of Shia cleric Muqtada al- Sadr, who has demanded a cabinet of technocrats instead of cabinet positions being given to political factions, a policy that has contributed to endemic corruption.
The ransacking of parliament was an embarrassment to both the White House and Abadi but it does not appear to have led to any changes in terms of policy. Abadi merely fired the head of security of the Green Zone, the closed-off governmental area of Baghdad, and continued to try to form a cabinet of technocrats (something he pledged to do months earlier) without much success.
Washington has stuck with Abadi despite his weakened position. This is largely because the Obama administration still sees him as an honourable person trying his best and does not see a viable alternative. The reality of demographics and sectarian politics in Iraq mean that any Iraqi prime minister must come from one of the established Shia parties (Abadi is from the Dawa Party) and, as such, has limited room to manoeuvre.
This is one of the main reasons Abadi has difficulty getting the technocratic cabinet he wants. If he tries to move too forcefully on this issue, his political standing is jeopardised. Although the United States is spending millions of dollars in Iraq on “good governance” programmes, including several anti-corruption projects, it is questionable whether they are having any effect.
US Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Baghdad after the ransacking of parliament in an effort to prevent Iraq’s political problems from derailing the administration’s focus on ISIS. According to media reports, Kerry urged Abadi “not to allow Baghdad’s domestic tribulations to sap the campaign” against ISIS. “We will not be complacent at any point in this campaign… In the coming weeks and months, we will work with Iraq to turn up the pressure further,” Kerry said.
The problem is that it is very difficult for the Iraqi government to keep the eye on ISIS while the political situation in Baghdad remains so chaotic. Former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford recently said: “The problem in Baghdad underlines how tenuous the government situation is. This isn’t something that Apaches [helicopters] and F-16s can fix. You must deal with the politics as much as you deal with the military.”
Although ISIS has lost territory in Iraq, particularly in Anbar province, the much-vaunted campaign against its stronghold in Mosul has stalled. A US Defense Department official said at the end of April: “We have to be realistic… Once we get into June, July and August, it starts to get pretty hot in Iraq and things slow down… We want to make as much progress before the summer heat really gets raging.” Another Defense Department official said the push towards Mosul might involve as many as 25,000 Iraqi troops but a force of that size is not ready for the task.
In addition to these political and military problems is the explosive Kurdish issue. Iraqi Kurds are preparing for a referendum to determine whether to establish a sovereign state. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post on May 6th, Masrour Barzani, chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, wrote that “there is no trust between us and the central government” and, therefore, “separation is the only option remaining”.
That prospect worries the Obama administration, which, despite its close military ties to the Kurds of Iraq and Syria, sees an independence drive as complicating the effort against ISIS by causing more regional conflicts. However, the Obama administration has consistently resisted calls that might head off such a drive, such as supporting a federated Iraqi state, something that Biden had advocated when he was a US senator.
It is possible that in the not-too-distant future, Iraq will have no functioning government, the Kurds will opt for independence and the push to take Mosul will be delayed even further. Meanwhile, US policy remains stuck in second gear.