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Tough Talk on Islamic State, but Cold Shoulder for Iraq?

Iraq's highest-elected Sunni official wants the United States to provide weapons directly to Sunni tribesmen fighting the Islamic State.

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This story was updated Tuesday evening with new information from the Pentagon. 

Perhaps it is little wonder that Iraq feels its fight against the Islamic State does not have the West’s full support. For all the tough talk this week at the G-7 summit in Germany about defeating the extremists, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi left with little more than securing new help from 125 British troops and a lecture from U.S. President Barack Obama about how Baghdad has hindered a strategy for the war.

And then, of course, there was this: A video of Obama seemingly oblivious to Abadi patiently waiting to talk to him before giving up and walking away as the American president happily chats with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and IMF chief Christine Lagarde.

“I have to look at this as the Iraqi people would see it,” Iraqi Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri said Tuesday, watching a clip of the video during an interview in Washington with Foreign Policy. He smiled ruefully and shook his head. “Ignoring us and our problem — it is very clear,” he said, as translated by a State Department contractor. “It’s really as if the United States is not really looking at our problems or not paying attention to us.”

When asked for a response, White House National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey cited Obama and Abadi’s “strong partnership” and said the two leaders had kinder words for each other beyond the cringe-worthy moment caught on camera. Abadi was one of four private meetings Obama held with leaders at the summit.

Jabouri, Iraq’s highest-elected Sunni Muslim official, was in Washington this week to lobby for more help from business leaders and lawmakers. He said the Islamic State could be defeated sooner than the three-to-five-year time frame that the State Department estimated Tuesday morning — but only if Washington gets serious about doing it.

And that, he said, will take swifter steps to arm and directly train Sunni tribesmen who are fighting the Islamic State from their doorsteps. “This may not require a long time,” Jabouri said. “If there is a will to defeat Daesh, I believe that they can take a faster route.” Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

That is not to say that Iraq necessarily wants more U.S. troops to join the fight. It was the Iraqi parliament, after all, that refused in 2011 to extend legal protections to the American military that would have allowed U.S. forces to remain. The extremist group that now calls itself the Islamic State seized on the security vacuum left after the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011, and now controls one-third of the nation’s territory.

Jabouri said “it would be very difficult for us, from a political dimension” to reopen Iraq to the tens of thousands of U.S. troops who were there at the height of the war, and there is no appetite for that in Washington, either.

What he wants is a more focused approach on helping Sunni tribesmen, instead of shuttling weapons and training missions through Baghdad and the mostly-Shiite government soldiers. He also heartily acknowledged gaps in Iraq’s fractured security forces, and said a single military commander must be appointed to make overarching battlefield decisions for all troops fighting the Islamic State, instead of following the current tangled lines of authority that largely hew to regional and sectarian leadership.

The Pentagon is considering directly training Sunni tribesmen after a vetting process, said Defense spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren, who declined to provide details because plans have not been finalized. That vetting process, however, could take months if not years, if a similar system in Syria is any indication, and Defense officials first want Baghdad to approve the Sunni training program before U.S. troops begin.

Separately, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters in Jerusalem that he is reviewing U.S. troop levels in Iraq, and Washington reportedly is weighing sending between another 500 to 1,000 forces to bolster security efforts on the ground. Those plans may also increase the number of training sites in Iraq that are being run by U.S. troops, but it was not immediately clear Tuesday night by how many.

Fewer than 10,000 Islamic State fighters are in Iraq, Jabouri estimated, and less than 100 were responsible for overrunning the Sunni city of Ramadi in Iraq’s western Anbar province last month. “This is a number we can confront,” he said.

Why, then, has Iraq not?

Here, Jabouri was clear-eyed about his own country’s military failures. Corruption in the ranks has created a system where few soldiers feel wholly loyal to the fight, and many are poorly equipped and lack the logistical and other military support necessary to hold ground against the Islamic State. Many Iraqi Sunnis still feel more welcome by the extremists, who are also Sunni, than they do by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. And Shiite forces — including militias, some of which are backed by Iran — have little to no interest in a fight to the death for the Sunni regions that cover nearly all of northern and western Iraq.

“There was no will to help,” he said, underscoring again why he believes U.S. forces must work directly with Sunni tribal fighters. But he also chastised Washington for “the slow procedures that are taken to confront Daesh.”

“Frankly speaking, the blame must be placed on the United States to a large degree [in] finding a clear strategy that supports Iraq,” Jabouri said.

Paul McLeary contributed to this report.

Photo credit: YouTube/Washington Free Beacon

Lara Jakes is the deputy managing editor of news for Foreign Policy magazine and a former war correspondent, Baghdad bureau chief and award-winning senior national security and diplomatic writer for The Associated Press. She's a 1995 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband. @larajakesFP

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