How to Win Friends and Influence Iraqis

The United States has taken a back seat to Shiite militias and Iranian commanders in the battle for Tikrit. Does that make Washington all but irrelevant in Baghdad going forward?

Members of the Iraqi paramilitary Popular Mobilisation units, which are dominated by Shiite militias, flash the "V" for victory sign after regaining control of the village of Albu Ajil, near the city of Tikrit, from jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) group, on March 9, 2015. Some 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, police and the increasingly influential paramilitary Popular Mobilisation units, which are dominated by Shiite militias, have been involved in a week-old operation to recapture Tikrit, one of the jihadists' main hubs since they overran large parts of Iraq nine months ago. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Iranian special forces, backed by Iraqi Shiite militias, are poised to finish pushing the Islamic State out of Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit as soon as this week. That would be Baghdad’s first major victory over the militants — and it may be won without any direct U.S. military involvement whatsoever.

Deadly American airstrikes, including at least seven this weekend, are still vital to routing the extremists in western and northern Iraq and have cleared the way for security forces to move into other areas. But it is a truism among Middle Eastern nations that battlefield bravery wins the wasta — Arabic for “influence” — both in the military and in politics.

That has been uncomfortably evident as American and Iraqi officials watch Iran do something the Obama administration has been unwilling to: send combat soldiers into a major Iraqi city to battle the Islamic State on the ground. Iraqi security forces — made up of Shiite and Sunni troops — are fighting in Tikrit too, but in far smaller numbers. American warplanes, at least so far, haven’t flown any missions in support of the ground push in the Sunni-dominated city.

The battle of Tikrit is widely seen as a proving ground for an upcoming offensive in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, an Islamic State stronghold, and Shiite militias are already gearing up for that fight. Some Iraqi fighters and leaders also are asking for air power in Tikrit, although an American military official said Monday that there currently are no plans for the Pentagon to approve U.S. strikes, given Washington’s stated reluctance to help forces loyal to Iran.

There is, however, precedent: Last summer, U.S. airstrikes helped beat back the Islamic State in the town of Amerli, a battle that included Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers, as well as Iranian-led Shiite militias.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers from both parties worry that the White House already is doing too much to empower Iran. “We’re making Iraq a better place for Iran,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) flatly told a hearing last week.

The outcome of the ground war will resonate in Iraqi politics — even if the Shiite-led government in Baghdad hopes to remain close to both Washington and Tehran. “The immediate dynamics will be impacted,” Lukman Faily, Iraqi ambassador to the United States, told Foreign Policy.

He added: “But we anticipate, and work on having, a strong relationship with all allied in our fight against Daesh — including USA and Iran.” (“Daesh” is roughly translated as an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.)

In recent days, U.S. officials grudgingly have acknowledged Iran’s help in defeating the Islamic State. Washington maintains it is not coordinating or directly working with Tehran, but agrees that the tandem efforts have been effective.

Even so, U.S. officials worry about what Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey last week described as a possible what-comes-next scenario: Shiite militias taking over Sunni areas they have liberated and, in turn, setting conditions for a new civil war.

“We are all concerned about what happens after the drums stop beating and ISIL is defeated, and whether the government of Iraq will remain on a path to provide an inclusive government for all of the various groups within it,” Dempsey told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. ISIL is another acronym for the Islamic State.

On Sunday, Dempsey’s predecessor, retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, accused the Shiite clerical regime in Iran of stoking terrorism across the Mideast region and helping Shiite militias kill large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq during the long war there.

“And so working together right now in a constructive way to eliminate the No. 1. threat in Iraq, I don’t think that opens the door for accepting who they are and what they’ve done in the past,” Mullen told NBC’s Meet the Press.

Baghdad does not seem to care — or, at least, is trying to placate Washington while still relying on help from Tehran.

While the Obama administration has supplied Iraq with a bounty of weapons and equipment — including rifles, ammunition, Hellfire missiles, body armor, and armored vehicles — Baghdad has complained at times that the United States is moving too slowly on both weapons deliveries and training Iraqi troops. Experts believe Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi likely is concerned that U.S. dithering to defeat the Islamic State in Syria will be mirrored in Iraq.

More recently, the Pentagon irked Iraqi leaders by telling reporters that the U.S. military expected Baghdad to launch the battle for Mosul in April or May and involve roughly 25,000 Iraqi troops and Kurdish fighters backed by American airstrikes. Caught off guard, Iraqi officials pushed back on the U.S. timeline and said it was up to the Iraqi government to decide when the offensive would begin. The U.S. disclosure of the Mosul details and the ensuing backlash may have opened the door for even greater involvement by Shiite militias and Iran.

Still, Abadi is trying to strike a balance without angering Iraq’s two most potent allies. Faily praised U.S. assistance, including an estimated 1,500 airstrikes since last summer, as a “game-changer” in the war against the Islamic State. By contrast, he said, fewer than 100 Iranians currently are fighting in Iraq, and “that should say a lot about their involvement.”

Leading the Iranian front is Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the head of Tehran’s elite Quds Force, who for months has bounced from Iraqi battlefield to battlefield, taking selfies of himself with soldiers and racking up victories as he bolsters his cult of personality.

With Suleimani in command, Iran may not need the numbers to have at least the public perception of strength. Samir Sumaidaie, the former Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations and to Washington, said that while the United States is widely viewed as wielding supremacy in the skies, the Iranians “dominate on land” — and the Obama administration will have to get more active on the ground if it wants to overcome Tehran’s growing influence.

“It depends on how far the Americans want to go to prevent or ameliorate a future Iraq dominated by Iran,” Sumaidaie told FP. He predicted few, if any, changes in the U.S. combat role: “By a process of drift, they will end up conceding Iraq, in my view,” he said.

The Obama administration is more focused on what U.S. officials describe as the long game — namely, making sure the extremists don’t return after the battle has been won. The White House seeks what Defense Secretary Ashton Carter described last month as a “lasting defeat” against the Islamic State in a justification for keeping America’s powder dry.

So far, U.S. troops have trained thousands of Iraqi forces to secure parts of Iraq — including Tikrit and parts of western Anbar province — as the war pushes north toward Mosul. The White House also is banking on Baghdad to create a regional Iraqi force akin to a national guard that would be run by local officials instead of by the central government.

That plan has stalled in the Iraqi parliament, however, as leaders focus on the battle — and whether it will either exacerbate or temper sectarian and ethnic tensions among the country’s Shiite majority and minority Sunni and Kurdish populations.

“How that shakes out is going to be vital to the discussion and in many ways, Iran will certainly have some influence on that discussion, as do we, as do others,” said a senior Obama administration official who was not authorized to discuss the strategy by name.

“I think there are limitations to what Iran’s influence is, as well as ours,” the official said. “And we’re very mindful of that.”

However, Iran’s military support to Iraq poses real problems to the coalition of more than 60 nations that the United States has corralled to help defeat the Islamic State. The coalition largely relies on the participation of Sunni Arab allies in the region — like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates — which have provided airstrikes, training, and domestic reforms to prevent foreign fighters and funding from reaching the extremists in Iraq and Syria.

Iran’s role also has spooked Western officials. At a small briefing last week to reporters in Washington, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the Islamic State’s final defeat will come only if the Shiite-led government in Baghdad heeds Sunni demands for a fair share of power and jobs — and keep them from aligning with the extremists.

Though he’s had all indications that that process is underway, Steinmeier warned nonetheless that Sunnis may resist Shiite militias and Iranian forces that are “cementing the impression, the perception, of a sectarian-dominated Iraqi army which is re-stabilizing the Shiite influence.”

It is clear that the top U.S. priority in Iraq is to defeat the Islamic State — and deal later with Iran’s ever-growing influence in Baghdad. Yet that trade-off carries long-term consequences, and it’s not clear Washington has thought them through, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

He said the battle for Tikrit “sends a message to Iraqis about their abilities to succeed — with or without U.S. support.”

Sumaidaie, the former Iraqi ambassador, put it more bluntly.

“The net result if the Islamic State is defeated is the defeat will be credited to the ground forces,” he said. “They are the ones who are going to claim victory. It’s not the United States who will be doing the victory dance.”


Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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