The visit of Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar Abadi to Washington this week will test whether the White House has any Mideast strategy beyond a nuclear deal with Iran.
Even administration optimists have revised naive hopes that an accord would stabilize the region.
“We can do two things at the same time,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the PBS Newshour, meaning negotiate while standing up to Iranian interference in Yemen. The bigger question is whether the White House has a strategy to offset Iran’s drive to dominate its neighbors, a drive that is fueling sectarian war throughout the region.
The test case is Iraq.
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Abadi arrives as the war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is heating up within Iraq, the main battlefield for that struggle. But the Iraqi fight is being undercut by the machinations of Iran.
Our ill-planned Iraq war – and the heedless way President Barack Obama quit Iraq in 2011 – boosted Iran’s influence in the region and in Baghdad.
The previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, intensified links with Tehran and politicized Iraq’s army, which collapsed when ISIS seized a third of the country. Abadi is a far better leader and acts as an Iraqi nationalist rather than a sectarian. He is trying to rebuild the Iraqi army – with U.S. help – but this will be a long process.
In the meantime, Shiite militias, some closely allied with Iran, have led the fight to liberate areas held by ISIS. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, has publicly let himself be photographed alongside Iraqi Shiite fighting groups.
Yet the occupied areas are populated largely by Sunni civilians, who are fearful of the Shiite militias – and of Tehran. Those areas won’t be liberated unless local Sunnis rise up against ISIS.
Here is where the United States has a critical role to play.
In recent weeks, Shiite militiamen tried to drive ISIS fighters out of Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit without the Iraqi army. They sought to show Iraqis that no U.S. help was needed. Their goal: Become the core of Iraq’s army.
But the Shiite militiamen failed. They had to let the army call in U.S. air support to help take Tikrit.
This is a teachable moment – and shows the need for the United States to help Iraq find a new balance. “We are not denying Iran is there,” said the Iraqi ambassador to Washington, Lukman Faily. “But we need everyone to help.”
“The Iraqis were the first on the ground,” he adds, referring to the fact that Iran was the first to send in weapons and supplies when ISIS threatened Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Erbil. “Others came in late,” he told me, a reference to the slow U.S. response. “We accepted that 1 / 8Iranian 3 / 8 help, but we need to set boundaries. We don’t want to rely solely on Iran. Their weapons are less sophisticated than U.S. weapons, and we want less collateral damage.”
So now is the moment for Washington to strengthen Abadi’s hand and enable him to balance the role of Iran.
Take note: Abadi is a far cry from Maliki. He talks to groups and sects. He is the commander-in-chief of Iraq’s battered army, even though Soleimani may try to present himself in that role. Abadi knows that Sunni areas can’t be liberated, let alone held, unless Sunnis believe they have a future in Iraq.
“We are trying to reconcile [Sunni] tribes into the process,” insists Faily. Indeed, Abadi has reached out to Anbar province’s Sunni leaders, who were alienated from Maliki. There are ongoing discussions about freeing Sunni civilians, swept up by Maliki’s forces, and permitting elected Sunni leaders who had fled into exile to return. “Everyone sees reconciliation [between Shiites and Sunnis] as essential now,” Faily said.
U.S. forces are training a few thousand local security forces in Anbar, although they have been given only light weapons by Baghdad. The Shiite-dominated national parliament is still unwilling to follow through on stalled legislation to form and arm Sunni national guard troops.
I asked Faily what Abadi needs from Washington now.
First, he said, the United States should intercede with Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia to help Iraq. When Maliki was prime minister, Iraq’s Sunni neighbors were wary. But now, said Faily, “we face an acid test for the region to stand by Iraq and not let it be cornered.”
Second, Faily said, Iraq needs accelerated U.S. aid in rebuilding its army, along with close security coordination in the coming campaign against ISIS. “There is a regional narrative where Iraq is viewed as with or against Iran,” Faily said. “Don’t force us to make that choice. We have to deal with everyone, but we want more U.S. help.”
Past U.S. policies have helped push Iraq into Iranian arms. Now there is an opportunity to restore a balance, if Obama is willing to focus on Iraq in a way he has not done in the last six years.
Leave Iraq to Gen. Soleimani, and ISIS will remain inside Mosul while Iran controls Baghdad and the oil-rich south. Make a clear commitment to stand by Abadi, and his hand will be strengthened in fighting ISIS and reconciling with Sunnis. This is one key way to send a message to Iran that there are limits to its regional power.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.