Iraq Needs More U.S. Help to Defeat Jihad

After Tikrit, a long road.

Photographer: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi came to Washington this week with many urgent requests and will leave with some vague reassurances. President Barack Obama was right to promise more humanitarian and military assistance, but for it to be effective, the U.S. has to demand some changes from Abadi -- and make some of its own, in its mission and expectations.

All additional aid should be contingent on Abadi's progress in leading Iraq: quelling sectarian tensions, ensuring the safety of Sunni Muslims, professionalizing the multiethnic army, and diminishing the sway of Iran and the Shiite militias it backs. Abadi has struggled on these fronts, but he is certainly more reliable than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. Given the threat of Islamic State, he needs more support.

So the U.S. should increase the quantity and quality of its military aid -- and, if necessary, allow the Iraqi government, which has been strapped by the falling price of oil, deferred payment. The White House declined to say exactly what new hardware was under consideration, and the U.S. has to be extremely careful about Iraqi army weaponry falling into the hands of Islamic State. But the U.S. can certainly ramp up the delivery of such desperately needed items as mine-resistant vehicles, anti-tank missiles and body armor.

In return, and as a sign of good faith, Abadi and his military leaders should apprise the U.S. of all details of their plan to retake the city of Mosul. The offensive needs to include Sunni troops, and, once it's liberated, the city needs to be placed under a municipal government devoted to protecting civilians from the sort of Shiite retribution that occurred after Tikrit was retaken earlier this month.

Beyond meeting Abadi's immediate weapons needs, there are other ways the U.S. could improve its approach to the fight against Islamic State in Iraq. One is to ship weaponry directly to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the north, who have proved the most reliable and efficient force against the jihadists. Up to this point, these arms have been channeled through Baghdad -- at the demand of the Maliki government. But only a small portion of the materiel has been delivered to the Kurds.

Equally important, the more than 3,000 U.S. military trainers helping the Iraqi army should accompany Iraqi forces into battle. The Pentagon's refusal so far to allow this has opened a leadership vacuum that Iran's Quds Force has moved in to fill. A greater presence of specially trained U.S. forces in noncombat roles on the front lines would blunt Iran's sway and help forge a stronger Iraqi military.

The U.S. aim, of course, is to defeat Islamic State. But it has a larger objective, too: to leave behind a stable Iraq that allows the region's oil to flow, offers no refuge to terrorist groups and helps ensure the safety of Israel. For those goals to be realized, Abadi and the Kurds have to win on the battlefield, and they deserve all the support the U.S. can reasonably give them. 

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