U.S. Can't Lead From Behind in Iraq

Not all victories are desirable.

Photographer: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

As the U.S. stands aside while Iran-backed militiamen lead the fight to recapture the Iraqi town of Tikrit, it's hard to know if it would be worse for them to win this battle against Islamic State or to lose. What is clear is that the U.S. and its allies should be playing a stronger role in the war against Islamic State to keep Iraq from polarizing.

If the militias do retake Tikrit and then victimize Sunni civilians as they have done in other areas, it will become even harder to persuade Sunni Arabs to rise up against Islamic State or to hold Iraq's fragments together. And even if the miltias behave, their victory may lead to the "Hezbollahization" of Iraq,  a process in which Iran's militia allies take over the nation's security services and central government -- much as Hezbollah did in Lebanon.

No wonder General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew to Baghdad this weekend to find out what Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is thinking. As Dempsey told reporters on the flight: “The important thing about this operation in Tikrit in my view is less about how the ­military aspect of it goes and more about what follows.”

There is no neat solution here or perfect outcome for Iraq. The U.S. strategy of rebuilding an integrated Iraqi army of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds -- and bringing sectarian militias under a joint command -- is the best available. Unfortunately, though, as the campaign for Tikrit shows, the opposite is happening: Shiite militias, under the guidance of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, control the Iraqi army.

To realize its vision of a multisectarian, multiethnic Iraqi military, the U.S. will have to demonstrate that it is the more effective and reliable security partner for Iraq's government. That can't mean pouring combat troops back into Baghdad, something the White House ruled out again in the draft Authorization for Use of Military Force it submitted to Congress last month. But it doesn't need to.

That's because Iran, too, has been reluctant to deploy large numbers of troops to  Iraq. Iran is already bleeding cash and manpower to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's war for him. And even though Iran might prefer to see a Shiite-dominated Iraq, it also wants to keep the country whole.

So in the tussle for influence over Baghdad, the U.S. and its coalition allies just need to carry out their strategy more decisively. They have, for example, agreed to arm the Kurds -- and yet the Kurds complain that they are being starved of the heavy weapons they need to take on Islamic State. As a result, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are growing battle-weary -- and getting killed in significant numbers. Their resentment may make them reluctant to cooperate when the U.S. calls on them to drive Islamic State out of Mosul, a non-Kurdish town.

The U.S. has also been reluctant to deploy its military advisers -- some 3,000 now are in the country -- to work with Iraqi fighters on the front lines. Iran is thought to have fewer personnel in Iraq, and yet those present are highly visible at the front and have been instrumental in organizing the assault on Tikrit. General Dempsey says he's unimpressed by the chaotic result, but Iraq's Shiites are impressed by Iran's commitment.

At the moment, both the U.S. and Iran are focused on their common enemy, Islamic State. But as soon as that threat recedes, their contest for control of Iraq will flare again. In this competition, the U.S. has significant military and economic advantages, as well as one that's geographic: Iraq's Arab Shiites are as wary of their Persian neighbors as they are reliant on them. But the U.S. will have to push harder to exploit its advantages.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.