U.S.: Shiite Fighters in Iraq Are a Necessary, if Unlikely, Ally
America’s point man on the Islamic State maps a way forward after the fall of Ramadi.
DOHA, Qatar — Following the fall of another key Sunni city, President Barack Obama’s administration is scrambling to bolster Iraqi forces against the Islamic State and may, grudgingly, embrace Shiite militias at the risk of further inflaming sectarian tensions.
To be sure, the White House remains intent on supporting Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq’s western Anbar province and has pledged to make sure the Shiite-led government in Baghdad will as well. A former senior Obama administration official told lawmakers Wednesday that the United States should send more American special operations forces to Iraq to work directly with the Sunni tribesmen.
But in a separate speech in the Qatari capital, the top U.S. envoy to the global coalition against the Islamic State signaled that the Shiite volunteer fighters known as Popular Mobilization Forces will be necessary to wrest Anbar’s overwhelmingly Sunni cities back from the extremists.
The envoy, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, said the militias have an important role to play in liberating Anbar, so long as they “take command from the central authority.”
“And they are now doing that,” Allen told the Brookings Institution’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon warned Shiite militias from taking part in a planned — and now delayed — operation in the northern Iraqi city Mosul. The United States also refused to engage in a bloody battle in Saddam Hussein’s hometown Tikrit until Shiite militiamen, including some backed by Iran, withdrew from the fight. The Obama administration has been wary of working directly with Shiite volunteer fighters — especially those linked to Tehran — who for years threatened U.S. troops in Iraq. Doing so also would anger Israel and Sunni members of the coalition.
But after the Islamic State captured the provincial capital Ramadi last month, Anbar’s governing council unanimously voted to welcome the Shiite volunteers. And now U.S. and Iraqi leaders are preparing to employ the Shiite fighters in Anbar, so long as they follow Baghdad’s orders — and not Tehran’s.
This distinction has come into question in Iraq. After U.S. officials contended that most of the hardline militias withdrew from Tikrit, for example, Reuters reporters still witnessed Shiite militiamen conducting summary executions and looting homes and businesses in the city. While Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi expressly forbade such abuses and theoretically enjoys direct control over the militiamen, government security forces did nothing to stop the fighters involved, and Baghdad has not attempted to prosecute them during the last two months.
Allen sounded well-aware of the potential problems of sending Shiites into the Sunni region. Iraq is desperately trying to stave off another civil war between its two main Muslim sects — which is exactly what the Islamic State is seeking to attain.
If a predominantly Shiite force in Anbar “sits on top of a population for some period of time, we may well expect that tensions will emerge,” Allen said. “And then we have the consequent tragedies that we have seen.”
Allen said Abadi remains intent on using local forces to hold and stabilize Sunni areas once the Islamic State is chased out of population centers. The Shiite volunteers, Allen said, would largely stay outside the cities or other populated areas.
His speech followed a June 2 meeting in Paris of 25 world diplomats focused on defeating the Islamic State. In Doha, Allen said he’s “confident that Ramadi has actually redoubled our resolve.” But criticisms of U.S. policy are growing in Washington following the fall of Ramadi, and a former senior Obama administration official separately told a congressional panel Wednesday that the city’s capture was a major blow for the United States.
“The events in Ramadi in the past weeks were significant,” said Matt Spence, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy. “We must learn from ISIL’s successes in Ramadi, and adapt to new conditions on the battlefield.”
He was referring to an acronym for the Islamic State.
Spence said the United States must expand its role in Iraq if it wants to retake territory from the Islamic State, and called for sending more U.S. Special Forces (SF) advisors to work with Baghdad’s troops. The United States already has deployed SF advisers at the sprawling al-Asad air base in western Anbar, but Spence advised also putting them in the eastern part of the province — close to Baghdad — to work directly with Sunni tribes.
“Embedding U.S. forces can help inject energy into leadership development of new and weaker Iraqi commanders, and help them stand up units more quickly,” said Spence.
He also called on the United States to consider deploying American air controllers to allow for more frequent airstrikes on Islamic State targets and begin providing more sophisticated weaponry to Iraqi troops.
The recommendations do not come without risks.
Putting U.S. troops closer to the battle raises the likelihood of American casualties. Ramping up airstrikes increases the risk of civilian casualties in Iraq’s Sunni areas, where many analysts believe the battle for hearts and minds is paramount in the long term. And the White House has steadfastly refused to approve any military mission that could be widely seen as going back to war in Iraq.
Some Republicans welcomed Spence’s more aggressive proposals to deploy U.S. troops closer to the battle. “Excellent recommendations,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R-Fla.). She urged the administration to take up his suggestions.
Spence also called on the United States to press the Iraqi government to more actively enlist Sunni fighters and provide them with the weapons they need to fight the Islamic State. He called it “part of a long game” against the extremists.
“Engaging the Sunni tribes in the fight will take time, but the Iraqi government must move faster here,” Spence said.
Allen acknowledged the setback in Ramadi, but said the campaign against the group in Iraq was larger than any one city, and estimated that the Islamic State had lost “over 25 percent of the populated territory it once held” in Iraq.
Most of Allen’s remarks focused on the situation in Iraq, but the U.S. diplomat did give the impression of new movement on how to settle the four-year civil war in Syria that gave rise to the Islamic State.
He said there was a “very energetic discussion” on what a political transition in Damascus would look like, suggesting that it would oust President Bashar al-Assad from power but could give his traditional allies a seat at the table in the new political order. Allen also highlighted the U.S. Special Forces operation in eastern Syria that killed Islamic State commander Abu Sayyaf as a significant victory for obtaining elusive new information on the extremists’ financing system.
Allen maintained the Obama administration line that Assad must leave power to achieve peace, or at least political stability, in Syria. In Washington, however, some Republican lawmakers slammed Spence for defending a U.S. policy that so far has not toppled Assad’s regime.
“A failed strategy continues to be used in Syria,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). He said the dithering over Assad has given time for the Islamic State to metastasize at the expense of preparing Syrian troops for what he described as a regime change.
Spence warned a power vacuum — potentially creating even more chaos — would be created in the absence of Assad’s government without a clear political plan for moving forward.
But some hawkish Democrats and Republicans remain skeptical.
“Can we really be successful in our train and equip [program] in Syria if we’re training and equipping only to take on ISIS, when Assad continues to drop barrel bombs and chlorine on his own people?” asked Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.).
FP writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.
David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner