US policy dilemmas in Iraq

Friday 18/09/2015
US capacity to perform multiple tasks in Iraq is limited

WASHINGTON - US policymakers are largely pursuing the same policies in Iraq that they have been un­dertaking for the past year and the results are mixed. Although the Islamic State (ISIS) advance has been stopped and the Iraqi government has retaken some territory, ISIS remains entrenched in most Sunni areas of the country.
The United States is hoping the regular Iraqi military, despite its problematic record, will be the chief force taking the fight to ISIS and continues to train it but reali­ties on the ground show that the Kurdish and Shia militias are much more effective.
The mobilisation of Shia militia groups, along with US and coali­tion air strikes, was instrumental in checking the advance of ISIS (saving Baghdad) and were effec­tive in retaking Tikrit.
This combination of forces and capabilities made up for the dismal performance of the regular Iraqi Army in 2014, when it abandoned its positions along with hundreds of millions of dollars of US military equipment in the wake of ISIS’s rapid advance.
However, the United States re­mains skittish about cooperating with some Shia militias because of their close ties to Iran’s al-Quds force, an arm of Iran’s Islamic Rev­olutionary Guards Corps’ intelli­gence directorate.
In the north, the United States is working more openly with the Kurdish peshmerga forces, which, after initial setbacks, have retaken villages outside of Kirkuk, a mixed Kurdish-Arab city that the Kurds seized in 2014. But relying on the Kurds to be the spearhead of an offensive against ISIS is full of dif­ficulties because the Kurds are reluctant to insert themselves into predominantly Arab areas, such as Mosul.
Hence, the United States is de­voting attention and resources to retraining the regular Iraqi Army, which has an added benefit of showing Iraqi authorities that Washington is still supporting the concept of a unified Iraq. The prob­lem is that the regular army is be­set by nepotism, weak leadership and sectarian bias, according to sources in Washington. Whether the army can reconstitute itself into an effective fighting force re­mains an open question.
Even the Iraqi Ministry of De­fence is not relying on the regular army exclusively and counts on Shia militias as a part of its overall force structure.
Given these realities, the United States is attempting to parse out the “good versus the bad” Shia militias — the former being those without strong Iranian ties where­as some of the latter take direct orders from Iranian al-Quds com­manders.
The dilemma for the United States is that the so-called bad mi­litias are the most effective fighting forces, according to Washington sources. Indeed, it was these mili­tias who led the ground offensive against Tikrit.
Because the Republican-con­trolled US Congress is in no mood to help advance Iranian interests in Iraq — especially in the wake of its failure to block the Iran nuclear deal — President Barack Obama’s administration will have to tread carefully on helping Shia militias, even if it is just with air support.
On the other hand, many mem­bers of Congress want the admin­istration to do more to assist Iraqi Kurds militarily. The US Senate version of the fiscal year 2016 for­eign aid bill directs the administra­tion to provide military aid directly to the Kurdish Regional Govern­ment’s security services, while the House of Representatives calls on the US secretary of State to work with the Iraqi government “to ensure that the Kurdish Regional Government receives sufficient revenues and security assistance to address the ongoing security challenges posed by ISIS and other terrorist groups”.
The reason for this different ap­proach between the Shias and the Kurds is that the former are seen as pro-Iran whereas the latter are viewed as pro-United States, even though there are important nuanc­es to such characterisations.
In the meantime, the campaign against ISIS has been sidetracked by internal problems facing the government of Iraqi Prime Minis­ter Haider al-Abadi.
Demonstrations against electric­ity shortages during the summer quickly morphed into a campaign against corruption and calls for constitutional changes. Abadi is trying to be responsive to the de­mands and announced a reform agenda.
Some US commentators, such as former ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, have called on Obama administration officials to help Abadi carry out the reforms. In an op-ed published September 10th, Khalilzad wrote such cooperation could lead to “more effective gov­ernance, reconciliation and a re­duction in sectarian tension”.
But the US capacity to perform multiple tasks at the same time in Iraq is limited, especially since much of its attention is focused on Syria and the accompanying mi­grant crisis. As a result, the United States is likely to pursue “more of the same” in Iraq.