Photographer: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Iraq Diversifying Shiite Forces While Abuses Continue, U.S. Says

  • Report finds Sunnis, Kurds being brought into local forces
  • Government hasn't done enough about `abuse of Sunni civilians'

Iraq’s government has taken “meaningful steps” toward bringing minority Sunnis and Kurds into the military and government but hasn’t done enough to stop the abuse of citizens by Shiite-dominated militias, according to a U.S. assessment.

While President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials have expressed concern that Iraq’s leaders remain mired in sectarian divisions and tensions that can undercut the fight against Islamic State, the Defense and State departments focused on signs of progress in the joint report required by Congress.

The composition of local military forces “increasingly reflects the demographic make-up of their communities,” the departments said. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s administration has enrolled more than 11,000 Sunnis in the mostly Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces, according to the report, which is labeled "For Official Use Only” and was obtained by Bloomberg News.

Civilians Abused

Still, the government hasn’t effectively stopped the mobilization forces from the “abuse of Sunni civilians or held the perpetrators accountable,” said the report submitted last month.

Vice President Joe Biden made a surprise trip to Iraq Thursday to meet with Abadi, his first visit since 2011. Obama expressed frustration during a visit to Saudi Arabia this month that the long-disputed composition of Iraq’s central government remains unresolved.

“They’ve got a lot on their plate,” Obama said. “Now is not the time for government gridlock or bickering.”

Abadi, who has pledged to give Sunnis and Kurds a bigger role in the Shiite-dominated government, most recently has faced resistance to an effort to replace politicians in key roles with technocrats. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in testimony Thursday before a Senate committee that as Islamic State’s direct threat to Baghdad “has diminished, political ambitions have created discord, and, in some instances, ethno-sectarian competition has increased.”

U.S. Concerns

Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, said in an e-mail that “a key continuing deficiency with the Iraq government seems to be its failure to hold institutions and officials to account for abuses” even as “it is clear that Prime Minister Abadi is at least attempting to address some key U.S. concerns.”

The six-page report said that the Iraqi government “has been a willing and able partner in facilitating the provision of supplies, equipment and weaponry” to the Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni volunteer security forces.

And while “slow to start,” the government also “has cooperated with the U.S. to provide” body armor, ammunition and other equipment to Sunni forces, according to the report submitted to congressional foreign affairs and defense committees on March 24 by Brian McKeon, the principal deputy secretary of defense for policy.

On the negative side of the ledger, it said Iraq’s government “has not made adequate progress in addressing judicial transparency based on reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions.”

Also, with more than 3.3 million Iraqis displaced by Islamic State terrorists, the government ministry responsible for disbursing more than $3 billion in aid “lacks the financial and human resources to provide adequate assistance and to manage camps for the displaced,” it said.

Anthony Cordesman, a military strategist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview that while the generally optimistic report is “technically correct” in meeting a legislative requirement, “it just bears absolutely nothing in any serious way to the realities of Iraq today.”

“Both the Abadi government and U.S. country team have done everything it can within the political limits that exist in today’s Iraq,” Cordesman said. But “sometimes you don’t have good options.”

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