What can the U.S. do about ISIL in Iraq?

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is heading toward Baghdad after seizing two major cities in under a week

As fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant continue to gain more of a grip on Iraq with eyes on Baghdad, the situation on the ground appears to have outpaced the U.S. president.

"Iraq is going to need more help — more help from us and the international community," said President Barack Obama on Thursday.

"I don't rule out anything — we have a stake in making sure these jihadists don't get a foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter."

The city of Tikrit is the latest to fall. The hometown of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was besieged on Wednesday, one day after a similar ambush in neighboring Mosul. Tikrit is just 70 miles north of Baghdad.

In both cities, Iraqi soldiers en masse laid down their arms and abandoned their posts, giving up the ground U.S. troops had given them years before.

Hundreds of thousands of residents affected by the fighting continue to flood a nearby United Nations refugee camp, echoing the similar plights of many in neighboring Syria, where ISIL also has a role in the violence.

How credible is the threat ISIL poses to Baghdad?

What could U.S. help look like?

What will be the role of other regional players like Iran and Turkey?

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

Laith Kubba

Laith Kubba is the senior director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Middle East and North Africa department. Kubba also helped found the Iraqi National Congress in 1992, and has worked for the past decade as an independent opposition figure. 

Daniel Marans: ISIL has advanced rapidly. How credible is the threat it poses to Baghdad?

Laith Kubba: I think they cannot take over Baghdad. It's true that the way they have been operating shows they have been planning this for months and they have many people who sympathize with them. That has paved the way for these successes. Those sympathizers gave them fertile grounds to expand. So they might have some spots around Baghdad they can reach, and they may have some contacts that enable them to do car bombs around Baghdad. It might paralyze the city, but Baghdad will not fall to them.

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked for American air power. Should the U.S. help militarily, and what should it look like?

Maliki has been prime minister for eight years. Adding more arms to a failed structure would not make sense to any policymaker. I do believe assistance is needed, including logistics and possibly arms, but it must be contingent on deeper changes. To be indifferent to what has occurred over the past few years that led to the rise of ISIL is unconscionable. They will not grant his exact request, but I do believe the threat is so big that Washington cannot be altogether indifferent.

[ISIL car bombs] might paralyze the city, but Baghdad will not fall to them.

Laith Kubba

National Endowment for Democracy

How else should the U.S. handle the situation?

There ought to be multiple tracks. The most urgent one has to come from within Iraq and Baghdad, from Maliki and people around him. He has asked for emergency rule and more powers, and asked for tribesmen and militias to form a parallel army. These are reactions and do not address the underlying issue. They must form a national council to which he surrenders some powers. That is a political question. As to whether Baghdad can handle that first step, I do not know. That is one line of action that the U.S. or other powers might help deliver.

A second track, and it might be wishful thinking unless there is a reversal in U.S. posture on what is going on in the region, is the key players, Iran and Saudi Arabia. One would appeal to them to serve a role in a responsible way rather than a proxy war. I do not know whether Turkey can broker that. But without ending the proxy war, you cannot defeat ISIL.

The Obama administration’s foreign policy is dictated by domestic considerations which are detached from what the region needs. I do not have direct recommendations on how this should be handled.

Daniel Marans: What should be done about ISIL by the U.S.?

Bill Roggio: The U.S. should be willing to attempt to re-engage with the Iraqi government and mend ties with Sunnis and the Shia government. It should be willing to reinsert itself on the ground. To conduct airstrikes you would need to put troops on the ground in country. It is not just B-52s — it is folks on the ground. We need to get back in the special operations game as well. Ideally, we should do what we should have done in 2011, which is keep 10,000 troops there to support Iraqi security forces.


Do you have any confidence in Maliki’s ability to turn back the tide on ISIL?

If the U.S. provides support and the Kurds back the Iraqi government, then yes, I think Maliki could push these people back. But him on his own? No. He might be able to defend Baghdad and Samarra. They have not been able to eject [the rebels from] Fallujah since January. What makes us think he could do it in Mosul, much further away?

I’ll use a Syria analogy. Assad had a pretty unified force at the beginning of his civil war, and look at Syria today. Maliki has always had a contentious relationship with the Kurds and Sunnis. What makes us think he could do better than Assad?

Ideally, we should do what we should have done in 2011, which is keep 10,000 troops there to support Iraqi security forces.

Bill Roggio

Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

What are the prospects for engagement of regional powers like Turkey in Iraq?

Regional engagement has always led to a lot of talk and not a lot getting done. I am not sure what the Turks could provide in Iraq, especially given all of the contentious issues with the Kurds. If they have not been willing to invade Syria, it is unlikely to occur in Iraq.

Earlier on in Iraq, it took the U.S. doing the surge unilaterally to get anything done. Not regional engagement. All of the attempts at regional engagement are just talk.

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