Islamic State’s Rapid Gains Forced Obama’s Hand in Iraq

President Barack Obama misjudged his ability to persuade Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to yield power to a more inclusive government and how much time there was to thwart the advance of Sunni extremists.

Some American officials failed to anticipate how quickly the militant group Islamic State could conquer a swath of northern Iraq, in part because the U.S. overestimated the ability and readiness of Kurdish, Iraqi and local Sunni forces to combat them, according to U.S. officials who asked not to be identified in order to discuss presidential deliberations.

“There is no doubt that their advance, their movement over the last several months, has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates and, I think, the expectations of policy makers both in and outside of Iraq,” Obama told reporters at the White House Aug. 9.

As a result, Obama remained focused on pressing Maliki to step down, intending to put off a decision on military action until there were political changes in Baghdad. Maliki has only dug in, vowing late yesterday to sue the country’s newly chosen president for delaying the decision on a prime minister and sending troops and tanks into the streets of Baghdad.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry today publicly disavowed Maliki for the first time, saying the U.S. stands “absolutely, squarely behind” President Fouad Masoum and that Maliki isn’t even among the three candidates for prime minister favored by his fellow Shiites.

Two developments -- both with domestic political ramifications -- prompted Obama last week to order U.S. air strikes against the extremists, the U.S. officials said.

Dam, Oil Field

The first, they said, was the Islamic State’s campaign to exterminate the Yezidi minority and, after that, possibly the Christian communities in their path, which raised the specter of the administration doing nothing to prevent genocide. The second, the officials said, was the danger that the militants might attack Erbil, the Kurdish city which houses an American consulate and about 40 U.S. military advisers, summoning unwelcome memories of the militant attack on the U.S. post in Benghazi, Libya.

Two other developments forced Obama to shift his attention from Maliki to the Islamic State, the officials said. The first, which has been discussed openly, was the extremists’ seizure of the Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest, and Kurdish forces’ inability to defend it.

The second, which officials haven’t mentioned publicly, is the prospect that the Islamic State might attack another strategic target -- the large Kirkuk oil field -- a move that, if successful, would have implications for global oil supplies and prices and the world economy.

Maliki’s Resistance

For months, Obama had been pressing Iraqi political leaders to replace Maliki and form an “inclusive government” with support from minority Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds who he had stripped of power in Baghdad. U.S. diplomats told Iraqi leaders for weeks that the growing threat posed by radical Sunni insurgents should be a “wake-up call,” as Obama put it, on the need for political change.

The president, the officials said, was correct to think that no effective Iraqi resistance to the the extremists is possible so long as Maliki remains in power, but he was slow to acknowledge that only U.S.-led military and humanitarian intervention could buy the Iraqis enough time to form a more inclusive government and rebuild its shattered military.

Now, the officials said, the administration is facing the unpleasant question of whether pinpoint air strikes alone can halt the advance of a small, mobile force that in many places such as Mosul is intermingled with the civilian population.

Creating Caliphate

The Islamic State’s speed in taking over towns and key infrastructure around Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, was the final wake-up call for the Obama administration on the need for military action. That was the dire message Obama got from his top military adviser, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Aug. 6.

While Obama is intent on preserving a unified Iraq, the Islamic State seeks to create a religious caliphate across national borders within five years, and it called Obama’s bluff, leaving him little choice other than to order air strikes without a deal for a new government in Baghdad.

While Obama publicly tied his decision to the need to protect Americans in Erbil, as well as to avoid a massacre of Yezidis, there are larger strategic stakes for the U.S. in fighting a group that’s threatened attacks American interests beyond Iraq.

Joint Centers

Obama, who also has refrained from using U.S. military power against Islamic extremists in Syria, had sought to withhold any decision to order air strikes against the militants, the first American military action in Iraq since the last U.S. combat troops left there in December 2011, pending the formation of an “inclusive government” following parliamentary elections in April.

In June, he took the preliminary step of sending military advisers to set up up joint operations centers -- including one in Erbil -- to coordinate intelligence and planning with the Iraqis without engaging in the fighting.

The U.S. has taken the official position that it’s up to the Iraqis to choose their leaders, while pressing privately for changes. Until Kerry’s blunt comments today, the U.S. has stuck with ‘inclusive’’ as its diplomatic codeword for the choice of someone other than Maliki, who’s seeking a third term as prime minister. His record of sectarian actions helped push disaffected minority Sunnis into alliance with Islamic State militants.

Deadlines Missed

In the three months since the elections, as the Islamic State forces have grown stronger, Iraqis have agreed on a president, who’s a Kurd, and a Parliament speaker who’s Sunni, while negotiations have continued among Shiite politicians over who will be prime minister and form a new government.

Iraq missed the original Aug. 8 constitutional deadline for naming a prime minister. Yesterday, the parliament missed another deadline, adjourning until Aug. 19 without breaking the political deadlock.

In a speech on state television, Maliki said he plans to sue Masoum, the president, in federal court for violating the constitution by extending the period for choosing a candidate for prime minister. Overnight, Maliki deployed troops on the streets of Baghdad, many concentrated around the Green Zone, where government buildings and the U.S. embassy are located.

Three Candidates

Kerry, speaking to reporters in Sydney, responded by saying directly for the first time that Maliki must go.

“Among the Shia it is very, very evident that they have three candidates or so for prime minister, none of whom are Mr. Maliki,” Kerry said. “So what we urge the people of Iraq to do is to be calm. There should be no use of force, no introduction of troops or militias into this moment of democracy for Iraq.”

U.S. officials say that an inclusive government would drain the support the Islamic State has gained from moderate Sunnis, who joined the extremist insurgency out of anger at actions by Maliki and his Shiite allies, backed by Shiite Persian Iran. Kurdish leaders have threatened to act on their threats to secede from Iraq if Maliki claims a third term.

The Islamic State’s numbers have swelled with Sunni recruits seizing a chance to rebel against the majority Shiites even if they don’t agree with radicals’ extreme interpretation of Islam. Iraq’s Sunnis “resent Shiite political domination and perceived discrimination” by Maliki’s government, according to Kenneth Katzman, a Mideast analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

Shiite Cleric

Obama, as he left the White House for vacation on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, said the U.S. is still “pushing very hard” for a new government, and he continued to link American actions to the outcome of the political jockeying in Baghdad. Until that’s worked out, Obama said, “it is going to be hard to get the unity of effort that allows us to not just play defense, but also engage in some offense.”

Maliki, who was the top vote-getter in the April parliamentary elections, has sought to remain in power even in the face of criticism from Iraqi’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In his sermon Aug. 8, Sistani said politicians who cling to power are making a “grave mistake,” a message that was seen as pressure on Maliki to step aside.

Obama sent a similar signal when asked how long the air strikes may continue.

“The most important timetable that I’m focused on right now is the Iraqi government getting formed and finalized,” he said. “Because in the absence of an Iraqi government, it is very hard to get a unified effort by Iraqis” against the militants.

No ‘American Solution’

“We can conduct airstrikes, but ultimately there’s not going to be an American military solution to this problem,” Obama said. “There’s going to have to be an Iraqi solution that America and other countries and allies support. And that can’t happen effectively until you have a legitimate Iraqi government.

As recently as July 24, General Dempsey said at a conference that the administration was planning to wait to see whether Iraq forms a more inclusive government before deciding on the use of force against Islamic State fighters.

‘‘To precipitously take military action might gain some tactical advantage,” Dempsey said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “But it wouldn’t do much for us to build the kind of strategy that I think we need.”

Limo Ride

That changed abruptly by Aug. 6, when Dempsey sat in the presidential limousine with Obama following the African leaders’ summit. During a five-minute ride to the White House from the State Department, Dempsey told the president that the offensive by Iraqi militants had reached a critical point, according to an administration official who asked for anonymity to outline the private discussions.

That conversation led to an hour-long meeting in the Oval Office with Dempsey, Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough and top national security advisers. Two White House Situation Room deliberations followed on Aug. 7 -- a 90-minute session during which Obama was told that a genocide could unfold without U.S. intervention and later, after the president broke off to sign a Veterans Affairs bill, a final two-hour huddle in the afternoon.

The plans came together quickly because U.S. intelligence and reports from Iraqis and Kurdish forces were painting an agonizing humanitarian picture and raising the prospect of U.S. security risks the president couldn’t ignore, the official said.

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