WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama said Friday that the United States was considering how it might assist the government of Iraq in its fight against the Islamic extremists who seized much of the country this week, but only on the condition that Iraq’s many feuding factions set aside their differences and commit to a national unity government.
But the demand for internal accommodation seemed likely to prove to be an impossibly high bar to jump, even under the dire circumstances now unfolding in Iraq. Not only did it seem unlikely that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki would make concessions he’s rejected since before U.S. troops departed at the end of 2011, but it was unclear who would be his partners.
Islamist insurgents from the al Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria appear to have the backing of a range of disaffected Sunni Muslims and are ill disposed to any negotiations. The country’s Kurdish politicians, their forces now in control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, are more likely to push for independence than for bolstering a government they detest.
Repeatedly, U.S. leaders Friday called the collapsing security situation a “wake-up call” for Iraqi politicians.
“Any action that we may take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability, and account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq’s communities and to continue to build the capacity of an effective security force,” Obama said in remarks delivered on the White House lawn before departing for North Dakota. “We can’t do it for them.”
Obama specifically ruled out ground forces, but he said he would decide in the next few days whether other forms of military action, such as an airstrike on advancing ISIS forces, were appropriate.
Pentagon officials said they were drafting plans for Obama’s consideration, but there were many unknowns. For one, U.S. military officials said they could not confirm whether Iranian forces were operating in Baghdad, reportedly under the command of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s feared Al Quds Force. Military officials said they also don’t yet know how many U.S.-supplied weapons ended up in ISIS’ hands when Iraqi security forces abandoned their positions and fled.
“We have good eyes on the situation there,” Obama said. “We want to make sure that we’ve gathered all the intelligence that’s necessary so that if in fact I do direct an order, any actions there, that they’re targeted, they’re precise, and they’re going to have an effect.”
The most vexing question hanging over Obama’s deliberations was whether the U.S. would aid Iraq with Maliki as its leader.
In his statement, Obama did not utter Maliki’s name once, instead repeatedly talking about the need for wide-reaching reconciliation. White House spokesman Josh Earnest, however, later used the prime minister’s name, noting that Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who’s led U.S. dialogue with Iraq during the Obama presidency, have “consistently urged all the political leaders in Iraq, including Prime Minister Maliki, to be more inclusive in terms of the political agenda that they pursue.”
Earnest noted that the current situation “is characterized right now by a very urgent security threat,” but that the problem of disagreement among political leaders “is every bit as important. And that underlying problem is not one that can be solved through military might; it’s one that will require the cooperation of moderate leaders of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish.”
The problem of national reconciliation is certainly not a new one in Iraq. The United States has been calling for Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to compromise with one another almost from the day U.S. troops marched into Baghdad and forced the country’s longtime strongman, Saddam Hussein, to flee. In setting up Iraq’s new army, the United States insisted that only a multi-ethnic force could overcome the country’s ethnic rivalries.
But Maliki, an Arab Shiite, made few overtures to the other groups. After the United States left Iraq in 2011 under a timetable set by President George W. Bush, Maliki moved to undo the trappings of inclusiveness the United States had insisted on. He ordered the arrest of a Sunni vice president, Tariq al Hashemi, and accused him of running death squads; Hashemi evaded arrest by fleeing to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, where he was greeted with open arms.
Within a month of the U.S. troops departing, American officials in Iraq were bemoaning divisions among Iraqi officials, calling it a “real crisis” and warning that “our relationship, all the things we want to do,” depend on “a resolution through constitutional means” of issues.
Now, even as the onslaught by ISIS threatens Iraq, Obama’s insistence on political reconciliation before military help has support from people who know Iraq well.
“It’s a horrible thing that is happening. It is traumatic and horrible,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who commanded U.S. forces in northern Iraq in 2007 and 2008, said of the advance by the Islamic State. “But they knew it was happening. We tried to tell them this would happen unless they were more inclusive.”
Hertling said Iraq might well be better off without Maliki. “The trust between government and its forces and people is based on past behaviors and performance,” he said. “And in some circles, both inside and outside Iraq, Maliki has lost all trust.”
Douglas A. Ollivant, who advised both the Obama and the George W. Bush administrations on Iraq after serving two tours of duty there, said any solution goes beyond Maliki.
“It is not just Maliki who is the problem. The whole political system is a problem,” said Ollivant, now a managing partner at Mantid International, which does work in Iraq.
Even Republicans on Capitol Hill who favor U.S. airstrikes indicated they support the idea that political changes in Iraq must come first.
“Assuming the government of Iraq is willing to take immediate, concrete steps to rectify the political problems within their country, the administration, working with Congress, should then try to stop the bleeding in Iraq by providing the appropriate air assistance,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., placed the blame squarely at Maliki’s feet for what’s taken place this week in Iraq. “Maliki’s shortsighted power politics have alienated the Iraqi citizenry and helped ISIS take advantage of peaceful Sunni discontent.”
Lukman Faily, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, said he didn’t think it was too late for reconciliation. Like Washington officials, he, too, suggested the current crisis might finally get the attention of Maliki and Iraq’s other politicians.
“What has happened is unfortunate, but also a wakeup call to all Iraqis that they must stand united against this brutal enemy,” he said.
Hannah Allam of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.