Iraq Eyes Small Steps for Big Gains Against Islamic State
In putting the fight for Anbar before Mosul, Iraq seeks to win over suspicious Sunnis. To do so, Washington says Baghdad should also limit the role of Shiite militias backed by Iran.
In Iraqi parlance, the battle to liberate Anbar is proceeding shway-shway. Slowly, slowly. Little by little. That’s not just how Iraqi security forces are mounting a new assault against key Islamic State strongholds — but also how the Obama administration seeks to wean government security forces from Iran’s influence.
Baghdad’s revamped focus on the country’s sprawling western Anbar province — parts of which have been occupied for 16 months — will play out in a series of small but deliberate steps to turn its overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim communities against the Islamic extremists. Doing so will delay a massive military operation in the northern city of Mosul, which serves as the headquarters of the Islamic State in Iraq.
So far, the new campaign has not gone well: Islamic State fighters repelled Iraqi security forces and tribal fighters in Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital, late last week and kept firm control over the nearby city of Fallujah. Over the weekend, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered more troops to surrounding areas to stave off retreat.
But the shift to Anbar gives Iraqi forces an opportunity to win over suspicious Sunnis who fear their communities will be overrun by Shiite militias — some of which are linked to Iran — after the fight is over.
That will be one of the top topics of discussion between the Obama administration and Abadi this week in his first visit to Washington. U.S. officials also will use the trip — which marks only the second time Abadi has been to the United States — to remind him that only after American support replaced Iranian military aid in the Sunni city of Tikrit last month did Iraqi forces eke out a victory in what was one of the hardest-won battlegrounds against the Islamic State so far.
“Military forces backed primarily by Iran were running the show,” Vice President Joe Biden, referring to the Tikrit battle, told the National Defense University in a speech last week. “…Then something changed. The attack stalled.”
Biden acknowledged that Iraq will always have ties to Iran, given their shared border and, more importantly, their history as two Shiite powerhouses in an overwhelmingly Sunni-dominated Middle East. But in a clear challenge to Tehran, Biden maintained that “Iraqis do not want to be drawn into regional conflicts.”
“They don’t want to be puppets dangling on a string of anyone’s puppeteering in the region,” Biden said.
A senior U.S. official said Anbar’s mostly Sunni population makes it unlikely that Shiite militias will take on the Islamic State there. Many Sunni fighters have been reluctant to confront the extremists and, in some cases, believe the Islamic State is a more benevolent occupier than Shiite forces they believe are controlled by Iran. The senior official said that’s probably also the case — but perhaps less so — in Mosul, where the Pentagon in February outlined plans for a campaign by thousands of Iraqi security forces against the Islamic extremists. The senior U.S. official was not authorized to discuss the shift by name and spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity.
Initially set to begin either this month or next, the Mosul campaign was to be bolstered by U.S. special forces trainers, intelligence, and airstrikes. An Obama administration official told reporters last week that it’s now not clear when the Mosul fight might start: It “might end up coming last, and it might be some time from now,” said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to brief reporters. “But it is going to be a long, long, long haul.”
Historically, both Mosul and Anbar have been strongholds of the Islamic State and its organizational predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq. Mosul, which is Iraq’s second-largest city, stands at a crossroads for extremists traveling between Baghdad and the country’s border with Syria, where the Islamic State operates largely unmolested in that state’s northern and eastern regions.
Mosul’s population, while Sunni-dominated, also consists of ethnic Kurds and a scattering of Christians. It is closer to Iran’s border than is Anbar, and can be more easily accessed by Shiite militias seeking revenge for Islamic State bombings that destroyed Shiite shrines in Mosul last year.
The turn to Anbar, by contrast, will be far more reliant on Sunni tribal fighters who allied with U.S. forces in 2005 and 2006 in a turning point of the war against al Qaeda in Iraq. It will be largely incumbent on them, in a series of smaller-scale skirmishes, to oust the Islamic State from cities and towns across the desert province — including some areas the extremists have held since January 2014.
A U.S. military official told FP that there are currently no plans to bolster American assistance to the Anbar battles beyond a limited training mission already in place and ongoing airstrikes. Over the weekend, U.S. airstrikes hammered Islamic State targets in Hit and al-Asad, both in Anbar province. The airstrikes also hit Mosul and several other towns in predominantly Sunni areas.
Biden said in his speech last week that more than 6,000 Iraqi soldiers so far have graduated from training programs that the United States launched last year in four areas in Iraq — including one outside al-Asad. In turn, those soldiers will train other Iraqi forces and the Sunni tribal fighters to face the insurgency.
It is clear that Washington will urge Abadi, during his visit, to make sure that any Shiite militias are firmly under Baghdad’s control — and not Iran’s — as the war wears on. “There’s no doubt that this is a major concern of ours, but also, frankly, of the Iraqi government,” an Obama administration official told reporters during last week’s briefing.
Already, at least two Shiite militias have claimed they are participating in the Anbar assault, which Abadi announced only last week. One of the militias, Kataib Hezbollah, is funded and trained by the Iranian elite Quds paramilitary force; the other, Saraya al-Salam, is controlled by the anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has returned to his homeland after fleeing to study in Iran’s religious schools during the U.S. war in Iraq.
But other Shiite militias — including Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Nujaba Movement, and the Badr Brigades, all of which are linked to Iran — have said they will sit out the Anbar fight until Abadi invites them to join. The Institute for the Study of War also reported that those militias have made clear they will not participate if U.S. airstrikes continue in Anbar.
An analysis released Monday by IHS Country Risk, a private intelligence firm, concluded that Sunnis in Anbar may be leery about joining the government’s side if Shiite militias join in the fight. The analysis by IHS Middle East expert Jamie Ingram called the Sunni tribal fighters “essential” in defeating the Islamic State in Anbar.
Abadi, a Shiite, met last week with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar and delivered a first shipment of what has been promised as a total of 1,000 weapons for the new front against the Islamic State. It was a highly symbolic appearance for the prime minister, who is struggling to build back trust among Sunnis for the central government in Baghdad after his predecessor, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shiite, failed to deliver on years of similar promises of support and autonomy for Anbar and other Sunni areas. Maliki also targeted Sunni political leaders, fueling anger that fed the rise of the Islamic State.
Sunni lawmaker Jaber al-Jaberi said the Anbar offensive would take a step-by-step approach. In an interview with FP, Jaberi said the campaign would focus first on liberating the provincial capital Ramadi, then move on to Fallujah, and finally look to rout the Islamic State from the western reaches of the province.
In effect, Jaberi said, that will lock down the security of the main highway from Baghdad that runs through Anbar to the border with Jordan. U.S. officials have said rulers in the Sunni-majority states of Jordan and Saudi Arabia are similarly talking to their tribal leaders to bolster support for their brethren in Iraq.
Abadi and his government “still have to do more in Anbar,” Jaberi said, calling the current level of support for Sunni tribal fighters “very weak.”
Washington remains intent — at some point at least — on confronting the Islamic State in Mosul, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, met last week with Iraqi Kurdish leaders on how to do just that. Still, Obama administration officials insist that the fight first for Anbar ultimately will help a campaign for Mosul by cutting off Islamic State supply lines and communication between the two regions.
Beyond boots on the ground, however, there is a larger war being fought: to convince Iraqi Sunnis that their Shiite-led government will protect them. If Baghdad tries to win the battle of Mosul without first showing that its forces are a better bet than the Islamic State, the military campaign could fail.
“You can persuade some people to change their views, but that’s hard to do in wartime, and it’s not certain you’ll be successful,” said Jon Alterman, a Mideast expert who will host Abadi this week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
A slower approach in Anbar that builds confidence among Sunnis there, Alterman said, will pave the way toward an enduring victory in Mosul. “If people in areas under Iraqi government control are more secure and better off, then people in other areas will take note of that,” he said.
In other words, small steps; slowly, slowly. Shway, shway.
Foreign Policy Middle East Editor David Kenner in Beirut contributed to this report.
Photo credit: Haidar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images