Rise of Iraq’s Shiite militias: A spectacular failure for the U.S.

Iran is only too happy to be seen as leading a concerted war effort on behalf of the Shiites

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

We all know that the U.S. adventure in Iraq has been a fiasco. We have known this ever since the insurgency started, just after George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq. But just how much of a fiasco it has really been, is only now starting to become clear.

Officially, the U.S. went to war in Iraq over the fear that Saddam’s regime had a large arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction, weapons he might make available to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The trouble is that even as this was the case for war made to us, the public and the insiders in the Bush administration had little interest in the WMDs themselves, or whether indeed they were there. We know from numerous insider accounts that even on 9/11, the likes of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were saying this is good opportunity to strike Iraq. Just as we know that the likelihood of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime selling arms to al-Qaeda then was about as high as the likelihood of the U.S. selling arms to a resurgent and assertive Russia now.

Letting the cat out the bag

Wolfowitz let the cat out the bag quite explicitly: WMDs were a convenient pretext. There are, of course, many other more compelling reasons why the neocon hawks were so keen on invading Iraq – U.S. energy security, oil source diversification (where an over-reliance on the likes of Saudi Arabia is never a good idea), the security of Israel, containment of Iran, and so on.

With such a catastrophic failure to contain Iran, is it any wonder that President Obama is so keen to normalize, as much as possible, relations between Iran and the U.S.?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

And indeed, Iran containment was without a doubt a clear U.S. priority. With the U.S. dominating the Afghan landscape in the East, if they were also to then control Iraq in West and the strategic Strait of Hormuz, Iran would be fully contained. But of all the other reasons why the hawks thought invading Iraq would be a good idea, the notion that it would successfully encircle Iran has been the one that has failed the most spectacularly. It may be true that nobody could have foreseen the spectacular rise of ISIS, but we are now in a situation where the U.S. is being forced to rely on Iranian-backed Shiite militias, and even elements of the Iranian military to fight ISIS on the ground in Iraq. Not to mention that the U.S. still implicitly expecting the Iranian-backed Assad regime to fight ISIS in Syria.

This has become, for all practical intents and purposes, a conflict between Sunni jihadists and the Shiite of the Middle East backed and coordinated by Iran. And then in turn backed and aided by the U.S. and its Western allies. This unfortunately feeds directly into the ISIS recruitment propaganda, and means that ISIS is likely to retain the support of the Sunni population in the area of the Levant it controls indefinitely. And so long as ISIS retains the support of the local Sunnis, it cannot be defeated.

Attempts to reshape the conflict

And so far, the U.S. attempts to reshape this conflict as one between jihadists and mainstream Muslims are failing. The mixed-sect, U.S.-trained Iraqi army simply do not have the motivation and will to fight, the Sunni civilians in the occupied areas fear the Shiite Syrian and Iraqi governments (as well as their clandestine sectarian militias) more than they fear ISIS, Sunni Turkey is staying resolutely outside of the conflict, reticent of aiding Kurdish interests both in the region and within its own borders, and Sunni Jordan and Saudi Arabia are limiting their interventions to airstrikes, just like the West.

All the while, Iran is only too happy to be seen as leading a concerted war effort on behalf of the Shiites. A leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Qassem Suleimani, is now widely regarded as the most powerful man in the Middle East, even if few have heard of him in the West. Some have called him the Iranian viceroy of Iraq, and he is reported to have coordinated the actions of many of Iran’s regional proxies in Syria, Lebanon, the Israeli-occupied territories, and Afghanistan.

With such a catastrophic failure to contain Iran, is it any wonder that President Obama is so keen to normalize, as much as possible, relations between Iran and the U.S.? We have tried fighting Iran, we have tried to contain them and we have tried to keep them weak and isolated. And our actions have been disastrously self-defeating. This is what the U.S. neocon hawks and the Republican Party are still failing to understand. The tactics they have and still do favor on Iran have been an unmitigated fiasco. And it is time to wake up to the new reality in the Middle East. We need to talk to Iran. But this is not to say that we should stop supporting our other long-standing allies in the region.


Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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