President Barack Obama has made U.S. military help for Iraq’s beleaguered government contingent on fundamental changes by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who for eight years has resisted American calls for a more inclusive government.
Putting the onus to act on Maliki could give Obama a reason to avoid a resumption of American military involvement in Iraq, current and former administration officials said. The Shiite Muslim leader’s divisive ruling style, which marginalized minority Sunnis, helped pave the way for the jihadists’ blitzkrieg this week.
While ending Iraq’s sectarian strife is essential to defeating the insurgents, Maliki’s record of corruption and misrule leaves little room for optimism, they added. Instead, Maliki may turn to Shiite militias and Iran for support, possibly fueling a wider sectarian war.
“If there isn’t political change, and if the factions in Baghdad don’t rally together and present some kind of united front, it’s going to be very difficult” to give Iraq effective assistance, former U.S. director of national intelligence John Negroponte said in an interview for Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” airing this weekend. “And the situation runs the risk of getting even worse.”
Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group, said the U.S. should pressure Maliki to reach out to less extreme Sunni insurgents and the Sunni tribes that helped the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant make its territorial gains. Only a Sunni Arab backlash against ISIL would be effective, Itani said, but that requires a “Sunni-Shia reconciliation that Maliki has thus far proved unwilling to craft,” he said.
Obama hammered home his conditions yesterday, saying: “I want to make sure that everybody understands this message. The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they’re prepared to work together.”
The signs so far point to greater sectarian tensions rather than reconciliation. Iraq’s top Shiite cleric yesterday called on Iraqis to take up arms against the Sunni insurgency. The country’s Shiite majority long chafed under former President Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority rule.
James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, warned that Iran may feel compelled to intervene, particularly if ISIL decides to push into the south, home to important Shia religious sites.
If that happens, “it’s very hard to imagine the Iranians not acting if somebody else doesn’t,” Jeffrey said yesterday. “And the consequences of a Shia-Sunni Gotterdammerung in the middle of the Middle East are just beyond calculation.”
The war already has rattled world oil markets. West Texas Intermediate and Brent crudes posted the biggest weekly gain this year amid concern about Iraq.
Futures in New York climbed 4.1 percent this week and 4.4 percent in London. WTI for July delivery rose 38 cents yesterday, or 0.4 percent, to settle at $106.91 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent for July settlement, which expired yesterday, increased 39 cents to $113.41 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange.
Officials in the State and Defense Departments and the U.S. intelligence community, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified assessments and internal policy discussions, said they remain skeptical that Maliki can unify the country, or is even willing to try.
Rather than examining his government’s role, they said, he and his aides blame Sunni Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch rival, for fomenting and financing Iraq’s Sunni insurgency.
“For years, Maliki has intimidated and driven key Sunni figures out of his government, ignored agreements to create a national unity government, alienated the Kurds, and tried to repress legitimate Sunni opposition in ways that have contributed to steadily rising violence and civilian deaths,” Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in a report this week.
Maliki’s actions have weakened the security forces in ways that set the stage for their rout, Cordesman wrote. “He used the Army and police in ways that alienated Sunnis in Iraq’s West and North, used them to attack peaceful protests, and failed to keep his promises to offer jobs and promotions” to Sunnis.
That outlook makes it unlikely that the Iraqi leader will change course, which could give Obama the rationale he may be seeking to avoid committing American military power to Iraq again, two of the U.S. officials said.
Obama said his national security team is considering options short of sending troops. Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby said yesterday that the U.S. has increased its flights of unmanned intelligence and surveillance aircraft and that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and senior officials are discussing options that could break the ISIL’s momentum.
Kirby added that the Pentagon was let down by the Iraqi military performance. “I’m not gonna be cute about it,” he said. “We’re certainly disappointed by the performance of some Iraqi force units with respect to the challenges that they have faced in the last few days.”
Numbering 280,000 personnel as of December 2011, including 200,000 in the Army, they face an insurgent group that numbers in the thousands, Kirby said.
Republicans were quick to criticize Obama’s approach. “We need to be hitting these columns of terrorists marching on Baghdad with drones now,” Representative Ed Royce, the Californian who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
Two Republican senators, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, also called for air strikes and warned that “a delayed or weak response from the United States will only deepen the Iraqi government’s dependence on Iran and destroy the prospects of national reconciliation.”
Reflecting the difficult choice between supporting Maliki, an ally of Iran, and allowing him to be overrun by a jihadist group so extreme that al-Qaeda has disowned it, McCain just a day earlier had declined to offer an opinion on air attacks.
Jeffrey, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, also has called for U.S. air strikes but counsels against deeper American involvement.
“American troops are not going to liberate the Sunni areas of Iraq,” he said yesterday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “That’s going to be Kurds, Sunni, Shia or nobody.”
If ISIL remains in Sunni areas, Jeffrey said, he expects to see “a classic insurgency.” If the insurgents push toward Baghdad, though, “the president is faced with a very different situation” because of the American presence there, he said.