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Obama’s Iraq dilemma: Fighting the ISIL puts US and Iran on the same side

Analysis: Washington, as ever, has no good option in Iraq

The lightning offensive that has seen Al-Qaeda-inspired fighters drive government security forces out of some of northern Iraq’s key cities has left the U.S. facing a strategic dilemma: A fractious and fragile Iraqi state created by the American-led invasion in 2003 is crumbling; putting it back together — or, at least, containing the spread of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — looks likely to require cooperation among foreign stakeholders who are anything but allies.

President Barack Obama, fresh off a speech at West Point where he vaunted the successful withdrawal from a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq,” confirmed in a hastily arranged press conference on the White House's South Lawn on Friday that he wouldn't send U.S. troops back to Iraq.

But after rebuffing requests from Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for U.S. airstrikes on ISIL strongholds for months, according to The New York Times, Obama on Friday made clear that the speed of the rebel advance had prompted his administration to reconsider targeted military action — and maybe recalibrate his noninterventionist approach in the Middle East.

"The United States will do our part, but understand that ultimately it's up to the Iraqis as a sovereign nation to solve their problems," Obama said.

"We won't allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we're there, we're keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, as soon as we're not there, suddenly people end up acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability of the country."

The president noted that the Iraqi security forces’ setbacks weren’t simply a result of their level of weaponry and technical capacity. Although the U.S. has spent some $14 billion over the past decade bolstering Iraqi forces, the problem is that the state those forces are intended to protect has never transcended its ethnic and sectarian rivalries to forge a stable national consensus, he said.

At West Point, Obama outlined a vision of counterterrorism outsourced to local allies and proxies, but in the Iraqi case, U.S. officials see the politics of the local partner as part of what is driving the security problem. 

Iraq’s post–Saddam Hussein political order remains deeply divided, and U.S. officials have long expressed frustration at Maliki’s failure to forge an inclusive political compact with the political representatives of the country’s Sunni minority. Even as Washington considers emergency action to shore up the Iraqi state, there’s no evidence to inspire confidence that Maliki will substantially change the basis on which he governs.

ISIL has flourished amid the alienation of Iraq’s Sunni communities from the Shia-dominated Maliki government. Long before this week’s takeover of Mosul and other towns and cities, Baghdad had lost control of Anbar province and faced widespread Sunni discontent with Maliki’s rule.

The ease with which ISIL now operates there reflects the collapse of the “Awakening” strategy at the heart of the U.S. surge in 2007, when local Sunni militias recruited by the U.S. effectively drove Al-Qaeda and its offshoots out of the region. The Maliki government has progressively antagonized these groups, who don’t appear to be resisting ISIL’s latest surge.

Despite the security crisis, Iraq’s parliament didn’t even convene to consider allowing Maliki to declare a state of emergency, with many Sunni and Kurdish legislators boycotting the session because they oppose expanding the prime minister’s powers.

The situation might have worked out differently had Maliki reached out to Sunnis, Kurds and other Iraqi minorities, some analysts said. The prime minister’s failure to do so creates a dilemma for the U.S., which does not want to — with any potential military support — reinforce the power of a sectarian Shia government that has proved incapable of creating a national political consensus.

“Al-Maliki has become steadily more authoritarian, corrupt, and repressive,” wrote Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday. “He has made the Iraqi security force his political tool, deprived it of effective leaders, used security funds for his own profit, and brought his supporters and relatives into the command chain.” This, Cordesman said, has empowered ISIL.

‘Bunch of thugs’

The challenge for Iraq’s neighbors may be more acute, because their strategic rivalry has prompted Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, among others, to back favored factions as proxies in their regionwide geopolitical contest.

Of all the regional powers, things are most clear-cut for Iran, the neighbor with whom Maliki is most closely aligned — an uncomfortable reality that U.S. conversation about Iraq has tended to overlook. Iran has promised to back Maliki to the hilt, much as it has done for its other key Arab ally, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

At the same time, an unnamed senior Iranian official told Reuters that Tehran is willing to cooperate with the U.S. in confronting the challenge of ISIL in Iraq.

Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s regional archenemy, is in a trickier position. Riyadh “has regarded Maliki as little more than an Iranian stooge,” wrote Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Although vulnerable to Al-Qaeda-types at home, [Gulf] countries (particularly Kuwait and Qatar) have often turned a blind eye to their citizens funding radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most active Islamist groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad in Syria,” he wrote.

Even then, however, ISIL’s emergence as a key player in the region is deeply threatening to the Saudis and their allies, too.

But as Iran steps forward to help its ally in Baghdad — a source in Tehran said Iran’s elite Quds Force has already deployed 150 men to help its neighbor — more robust Iranian involvement could further antagonize Iran’s regional rivals.

The dynamic on the ground, meanwhile, appears to foreshadow further fracturing. Even Thursday’s good news for Baghdad — that Kirkuk had been reclaimed from ISIL — was a mixed blessing: It was not central government forces who expelled the rebels, but militia units of the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in the north, which has long laid claim to the oil-rich city. Whether Kirkuk will be restored to control from Baghdad remains an open question.

Maliki has responded to the weakness of the state security forces by calling for an army of volunteers to take matters into their own hands — widely read as a move to revive the Shia militias that had come out on top in the country’s sectarian civil war in 2006–07. That impression was underscored by Friday’s call to arms by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shia.

Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army was one of the largest sectarian militias, officially dormant since 2007, promised to reactivate some of its units to defend Shia holy sites. 

A slide back into sectarian warfare offers ISIL more fertile ground in which to operate, and the increasingly powerful nonstate actor poses a threat to all of the region’s states, the antagonisms among them notwithstanding. But containing the danger will require a measure of cooperation and consensus among regional stakeholders Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S.

“Even if the territorial gains by [ISIL] are reversed, its offensive has already rapidly reframed analytical debates over the nature and fortunes of Al-Qaeda and the jihadist movement, the ability to contain spillover from Syria, possible areas of U.S.-Iranian cooperation and the viability of President Obama’s light-footprint Middle East strategy,” wrote Marc Lynch, director of George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies, on Thursday.

Nuclear talks suggest the U.S. and Iran are emerging from decades of icy relations, but any tentative rapprochement could be put to the test by the challenge of restoring Iraqi security. Even if they share a mutual interest in backing Maliki against ISIL, their broader strategic interests — and those of key U.S. ally and Iran adversary Saudi Arabia — are clearly divergent. But cooperation is hardly out of the question.

“Iran and the U.S. have essentially been the only important allies for the Maliki government, because of its alienation from the Sunni Arab world,” said Michael W. Hanna of the Century Foundation in Washington.

“People are waking up to [that] now because we have it in its undiluted form — the prospect of them both giving direct military aid to Maliki. But that was the case when the U.S. was there — Iran was just playing a more complicated game, funding and training Shia militias.”

Those militias may now rejoin the fight, and the Iranians are likely to expand their own involvement to prop up Maliki — as will the U.S. “I think we will help,” said Hanna. “I don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like, but I’m fairly certain we will take some serious steps.”

These steps would be aimed at shoring up the central government and preventing the rebels from marching on Baghdad. But as Obama alluded to on Friday, stopping the resumption of broad-based sectarian civil war will be far more challenging.

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