I’m heading to Iraq this week and then to Jordan for a closer look at the progress (or regress) of the war on the Islamic State.
I’ll be visiting Iraqi Kurdistan, in the north of the country, where Kurdish peshmerga fighters are training to lead an eventual effort to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) seized in June and made the headquarters of its so-called caliphate.
The day before my departure, a car bomb went off outside the U.S. consulate-general in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, which is only around 50 miles from Mosul. This was no doubt a nasty warning from ISIS to the Kurds – and their U.S. advisers – of the hard fight ahead.
Kurdistan is a fascinating vantage point from which to assess the struggle. I will meet sheikhs who fled Anbar province in western Iraq, where ISIS is threatening to overrun the capital, Ramadi. If ISIS can’t be turned back in Anbar, there’s little chance of pushing it out of Mosul.
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I will also talk to Sunni tribal leaders from Mosul who have sought refuge in the Kurdish region, and to Christian and Yazidi refugees who’ve fled ISIS advances. And I’ll meet Kurdish leaders, whose role is critical if Mosul is to be liberated.
Throughout my trip, I will be looking for answers to this $64 million question: Who will do the actual on-the-ground fighting against ISIS? Will it be Iraq’s national army, along with local Sunni fighters and Kurdish peshmerga troops around Mosul – backed by U.S. airstrikes?
Or will it be Iraqi Shiite militias backed by Tehran?
The answer will affect much more than Iraq’s survival as a country. It will help determine whether the entire region sinks into a series of protracted sectarian wars.
To understand why, a little history is needed. After the U.S. pulled all its troops from Iraq in 2011, a vacuum was created, says the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. “The region will not tolerate a vacuum,” he points out. “Other forces moved in to fill it, ISIS on the one side, Iran on the other.”
A sectarian Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, sacked professional Iraqi generals and packed the Iraqi army with crony officers. Meantime, Iranian-backed militias became more powerful than the official security forces.
Maliki’s repression of Sunnis so alienated large segments of Sunni-majority regions that many tolerated the advance of ISIS in Anbar and Nineveh provinces. Meantime, the degraded Iraqi army collapsed when ISIS advanced on Mosul.
Fast-forward. Maliki has been replaced by the far more open-minded Haidar al-Abadi, who made clear last week in Washington that he wants to rebuild his army with U.S. assistance and American air support. He also wants to bring Shiite militias and tens of thousands of Shiite volunteers under the central command of the Iraq army. And he wants to encourage Sunni tribal leaders to join the fight.
But pro-Iranian militias are keen to lead the battle against ISIS, believing that will make them the most powerful force in the country. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, has ostentatiously appeared by their side on the battlefield. “It will be a major challenge for the prime minister of Iraq to try to keep these groups under the Iraqi state,” says Sinan Adnan, an Iraqi analyst who follows the battlefield closely for the Institute for the Study of War.
Yet, if Iran’s proxy forces head the fight against ISIS, they will make a terrible situation even more ugly. Local Sunnis, fearful of the militias, which are prone to looting and revenge killings, won’t join the battle.
The Shiite militias can’t win on their own, as was clear in the recent battle for Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, where ISIS fought them to a draw until U.S. airstrikes tipped the balance. Yet Washington has rightly made clear it won’t act as an air force for Iranian proxies. U.S. planes came to the rescue in Tikrit only when the Shiite militias withdrew and Iraqi government security forces moved in.
Unfortunately, there aren’t yet enough of those rebuilt national Iraqi forces to win the battle. And, despite overtures by Abadi, many Sunni sheikhs are still too fearful of the Shiite-led government, and of ISIS, to revolt against the jihadis.
Nor is it clear how much solid backing the White House will give Abadi. The White House showered him with kind words but has been slow to provide sufficient military trainers, intelligence support, targeting support, and critical weapons systems. Meantime, Iran is pouring money, weapons, and advisers into Iraq.
The result: Thousands of Iraqi families fled Anbar province last week as ISIS moved forward. If Ramadi falls, it will set back any hope of crushing the ISIS caliphate anytime soon.
So now is the moment of testing for Iraq’s political leadership and for Obama’s strategy to degrade and ultimately defeat the jihadis.
“This is the moment when we and the Iraqis have to decide what is next,” says Crocker. “I hope it will be Anbar without Shia militias. Anbar is doable. The stakes are pretty high, enough to make this administration recognize you can’t win by withdrawing from the battlefield.”
Let’s hope Crocker is correct. Let’s hope the president isn’t too distracted by the nuclear talks with Iran, where he looks to be conceding too much too fast on sanctions relief to Tehran. If ISIS makes further gains in Iraq, it will further undercut the U.S. negotiating hand by making U.S. efforts and airstrikes there look feckless.
I’m heading for Iraq at a critical moment when the White House needs to fully focus its attention on ISIS and Iraq.
Trudy Rubin’s email is email@example.com.