Between ISIS & Iran’s militias, US gives up on the State of Iraq

Five years into the US withdrawal, Iraq’s sovereignty, stability, and self-reliance are a distant memory

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

When US President Barack Obama promised in 2011 that American forces are “leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq” he couldn’t be more far off from the reality that emerged today. Five years into the withdrawal, Iraq’s sovereignty, stability, and self-reliance are a distant memory, as terrorist groups and militias dictate the rules of the game and the map of the battles from Baghdad to Karkouk.

The scene from the Iraqi city of Fallujah undergoing now its third “liberation” battle from ISIS, says it all. Along with the Iraqi forces, it is Iranian funded and organized paramilitary groups with direct help and presence of Tehran’s “shadow commander” Qassem Suleimani leading the fight for Fallujah, and under air cover from the US and coalition forces.

US picks its poison

Washington’s air cover to US designated terrorist Qassem Suleimani, as he takes on another designated terrorist organization ISIS, perfectly sums up the American dilemma and tragedy in Iraq. The US priority in the country it invaded and occupied in 2003 is solely defined today by fighting ISIS while overlooking the tactics and the means to do so.

Two years after ISIS ransacked Mosul from the Iraqi forces in June of 2014, Washington appears to have lost faith in the Iraqi military and in the political prowess of the government in Baghdad to rule over the country.

Washington’s air cover to US designated terrorist Qassem Suleimani, as he takes on another designated terrorist organization ISIS, perfectly sums up the American dilemma and tragedy in Iraq

Joyce Karam

Instead, the US along with the regional and coalition countries involved in Iraq are coming to terms with Iran and not Baghdad calling the shots, and that their paramilitaries are the lesser of two evils in conducting policy in the old Mesopotamia.

Whatever plans the US had after 2014 to build a “National Guard” force of mainly local tribal forces to fight ISIS in the Sunni areas it controls, they have crumbled in the face of Iranian opposition and its veto power in Iraqi politics.

The Iranian strategy has had the last word, as Tehran formed, trained and equipped an almost 100,000 Shia-majority militia known as “the popular mobilization forces” to fight ISIS in Iraq’s Sunni heartland.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Abadi is left with no choice but to follow Iran’s lead as his government coalition and Baghdad’s own security depends on accommodating Tehran’s men and securing the capital.

Iran’s paramilitary group has so far been critical in dictating the roadmap for the fight in Tikrit, Ramadi and now Fallujah, scoring military victories while at the same time exacerbating sectarian divisions with reports of looting, displacement of locals followed the takeover from ISIS.

Shortsighted strategy

Outsourcing the fight against ISIS to Iranian funded and trained militias is nothing short of a recipe for disaster in Iraq. It shows that the US is once again prioritizing the political timeline to defeat ISIS in as many cities as possible before Obama leaves office in January, while ignoring the dire consequences these tactics would leave Iraq with in the medium and long term. Investing in Iraq’s sovereignty and building an inclusive power structure has taken the back seat to the immediate goal of fighting ISIS.

For the US the lesson of the fall of Mosul in 2014 is that it can’t rely on the Iraqi military that fled the city and gave in to ISIS. While this was a valid conclusion from the fall of Iraq’s second largest city, it cannot set the pace for the current strategy. Relying on Iranian militias to fight ISIS is counterproductive and feeds the sectarian narrative that led to the rise of the notorious group in the first place.

Arabic hashtags such as “Fallujah stands up to Iran” or “Fallujah under aggression” show more resentment at Iranian proxies entering Fallujah than rejecting ISIS. It is the Sunni disenfranchisement in post-Saddam Iraq that prompted the rise of ISIS, and it is the gift that keeps on giving for the terrorist group.

Militarily, and unless a political roadmap that grants the Sunnis and other minorities a fair share in the Iraqi power structure, ISIS can lose ground but will not be defeated. The group was declared dead after the US withdrawal in 2011 and managed to resurface and build on Baghdad’s political failures among the Sunni tribes.

By overlooking Iran’s military expansion in Iraq and letting go of its own plans to train and equip a National Guard force, the US is effectively giving up on the State of Iraq in the long term. A weak and fractured central government in Baghdad that is dependent on Iran is an acceptable outcome for Washington.

This is a recipe for failure given that Iran’s proxy militias from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq are there to stay and grow at the expense of the central state. Washington has adjusted to this status quo as long as it serves the nearsighted short term goal of fighting ISIS.

In 2003, the Bush administration invaded Iraq promising a “path to freedom and democracy.” Today, Iraq’s path is to paramilitaries and sectarian warfare, as the US minimizes its footprint and accepts shortsighted strategies in the name of counterterrorism and defeating ISIS.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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