Iraq on a Knife’s Edge

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Iraq is in the middle of a political crisis. Just two days after Vice President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Baghdad last Thursday, Shiite cleric and longtime American foe Muqtada al-Sadr directed his followers to storm the Green Zone, the heavily fortified seat of the national government. Sadr’s supporters occupied the parliament building and attacked a senior lawmaker. This demonstration was not only a blow to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s authority, but may also have grave ramifications for the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh).

The situation is fundamentally the product of an Iraqi national government run by sectarian factions rather than by Western-style political parties. As Emma Sky, former political advisor to coalition forces, observes, Iraq has become more of a “state of militias than a state of institutions,” which has spawned “a kleptocratic political class that lives in comfort in the Green Zone, detached from the long-suffering population, which still lacks basic services.”

This most recent crisis began last August when — in response to a burgeoning protest movement calling for governmental reforms — Prime Minister Abadi announced a series of anti-corruption measures, as well as efforts aimed at empowering the country’s disaffected Sunni minority. But, as Patrick Martin with the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has noted, “despite an initial flurry of successful reforms and unparalleled popular support for PM Abadi from thousands of civil demonstrators in Baghdad and southern Iraq, his political opponents have successfully blocked his reforms.” Their obstruction continued this February when Abadi tried to restart his reform initiative. Abadi attempted a “radical cabinet reshuffle” intended to oust entrenched sectarian ministers only to be met with multiple parties “hijack[ing] the process to both protect their own interests and to undermine their opponents within the cabinet.” Meanwhile, Sadr launched a gambit to take over the Iraqi protest movement and strengthen his own position within the Shiite bloc.

Following weeks of fraught negotiations between the competing sectarian factions, several parties fractured as members rejected their parties’ respective leaders, formed a rump parliament, and illegally chose a new speaker. If the rump parliament continues to challenge the authority of the national legislature, then the situation will deteriorate further. ISW projects many possible scenarios arising from this crisis, including protracted deadlock, the dissolution of the central government, mass demonstrations, a challenge from the courts, or a move by the militias for more power.

The greatest risk here is that, if Abadi’s government collapses, he could be replaced by a pro-Iranian leader who would force U.S. troops out of the country. In any case, the planned offensive aimed at retaking Mosul from ISIS is already suffering because of the Iraqis’ need to send reinforcements to the capital. ISIS will no doubt seek to exploit any instability in Baghdad by expanding its attacks throughout the country.

Though this situation reflects failed Iraqi leadership, Washington deserves its share of the blame. From the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 until the rise of ISIS in 2014, the Obama administration paid Iraq relatively little political attention. As James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq during that period, wrote, “the biggest mystery of this administration when it comes to Iraq . . . is what happened to high-level Washington attention to support the residual but large American presence after troops left in 2012–2014. U.S. programs to assist the Iraqis in intelligence collection, counterterrorism, and military train-and-equip, all approved at the top, languished on the vine.” But even after ISIS’s six-month sweep across Iraq from January to June 2014, Jeffrey recalled that “neither [Vice President] Biden nor anyone else was able to persuade the president to provide significantly more assistance to the embattled Iraqis.”

The president’s efforts since the U.S. re-entered the conflict in the summer of 2014 have not been exemplary. Mr. Obama has pursued a policy of half measures that has not loosened ISIS’s grip over its strongholds. The new steps that Secretary of Defense Ashton Cater announced last month to support Baghdad — deploying additional U.S. advisors to the battalion level of the Iraqi Security Forces, and using attack helicopters and artillery to support the Iraqi-led ground offensive — should have been made 18 months ago. At present, the Iraqi military is simply not large or capable enough to oust ISIS from Mosul, the country’s second largest city.

Furthermore, while the death of a Navy SEAL who was partnering with Kurdish forces in northern Iraq this week was indeed tragic, the hard truth is that many more U.S. servicemen will need to be put in harm’s way if we want to most effectively support our Iraqi partners. This is a choice that President Obama must make. And he must be willing to accept the consequences.

If he chooses not to do so, then Mr. Obama must recognize that he is further risking the future of an Iraqi government already on a knife’s edge, and that if the political crisis deteriorates further, America’s primary partner in the fight against ISIS will have vanished. ISIS will retain or expand its territory, leaving the jihadist group with a substantial safe haven to prepare further attacks against the West — as well as a new claim on success to draw more recruits.

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