New wave of Iraq violence presents U.S. with few good choices

Hannah Allam

A sudden spasm of violence in western Iraq has reignited the debate over how much responsibility the United States bears for the current turmoil in the Middle East and whether the right response is to wade in deeper or keep its distance.

For some foreign-policy analysts, the bloodshed this month in Iraq’s western Anbar province, where more than 1,000 American forces died in the fight against Sunni Muslim insurgents, is a reminder that the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 galvanized a jihadist movement that plagues the region today.

Analysts in this camp say the lesson is that U.S. military intervention – whether in Iraq’s current violence or in the civil war in neighboring Syria – is too risky in a region that’s highly unstable after the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.

In the opposing camp, other analysts argue that it’s precisely the Obama administration’s inaction on Syria that’s allowed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – an al Qaida affiliate – to carve out operational space in the lawless stretch between rebel-controlled eastern Syria and the tribal badlands of western Iraq.

Had the U.S. only armed the early moderate rebels, the reasoning goes, they would’ve been a more formidable foil to the jihadists who ultimately hijacked the movement to try and topple Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Now, the al Qaida operatives trying to reclaim territory in Iraq’s Anbar province have a cross-border escape route, making it difficult for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to rout them even with expedited weapons deliveries from the United States.

“Now all of a sudden the Obama administration realizes, ‘Wait, we should get involved here because al Qaida has this massive base in eastern Syria’? Well, now it’s almost too late,” said Kirk Sowell, a Jordan-based political risk analyst who’s the editor of the newsletter “Inside Iraqi Politics.”

Sowell said the United States should push Maliki on reforms that would make his security apparatus more representative and professional, but he added that the war in Syria limits the extent to which the prime minister would be able to confront al Qaida: “As long as ISIS has this base in eastern Syria, that’s a huge part of the resurgence.”

The link between the Anbar unrest and the civil war next door is another point of contention in foreign policy circles, where many analysts don’t buy the argument that the bloodshed that straddles the Iraqi-Syrian border could’ve been avoided had the U.S. moved quickly to support the moderate rebels.

The British journalist Brian Whitaker, who’s covered the Middle East for years with The Guardian newspaper, wrote this week that for all the criticism of the U.S. response to Syria, nobody has come up with an alternative that’s indisputably better.

“To some extent, Obama is being blamed for not behaving towards Syria as George Bush behaved towards Iraq – and we all know where that led,” Whitaker wrote on, his blog about politics in the Arab world. “There are still too many Americans who find it difficult to accept that the power of the United States has limitations and who view every problem, no matter where it occurs, as one that the U.S. has an obligation to try and solve – even at the risk of making things worse.”

Anbar province’s descent has spawned a flurry of commentary from longtime Iraq observers – academics, diplomats and military strategists – whose advice to the White House ranges from steering clear and letting the Iraqis resolve an internal conflict to beefing up military support for Maliki in a decisive battle to keep al Qaida from reclaiming an old foothold.

Still others land somewhere in the middle, advocating U.S. help for Maliki to combat al Qaida, but only on the condition that he take concrete steps to address the long-standing Sunni grievances and institutional sectarianism that have plagued the country.

“Provision of increased military support should be contingent on a true power-sharing agreement, one that respects the rights of all Iraqi citizens and brings to an end the vicious witch hunts against Sunni politicians,” argued Peter Mansoor, a retired colonel who served as executive officer to U.S. Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq and who now teaches at Ohio State University. “Until he agrees to such arrangements, Prime Minister Maliki should be left to handle the situation in his country on his own.”

So far the U.S. response has been fairly muted. Secretary of State John Kerry declared, “This is their fight,” and ruled out the possibility of sending U.S. troops to help. But the administration did accelerate the delivery of 100 Hellfire missiles and 10 drones, and is lobbying Congress to permit the sale of a fleet of attack helicopters. Lawmakers have been reluctant to support the sale because of Maliki’s backsliding on the path to more democratic rule.

James Jeffrey, who was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012, told “PBS NewsHour” that he disagreed with Kerry’s stance, and he argued that the United States should focus on flushing out al Qaida even if it meant going soft on Maliki. The eradication of al Qaida in Iraq should be a national security priority for the United States, he argued.

“This is our fight,” Jeffrey said this week in a PBS appearance. “We fought there in 2004 and we fought there, in part, to drive al Qaida out after they established a foothold. The Maliki government, for all of its problems, is still a government that’s a quasi-ally of ours.”

Another vocal Maliki supporter is Douglas Ollivant, who served as Iraq director on the National Security Council in the Bush and Obama administrations and was among the military intellectuals advising Petraeus when he was in Iraq. Now affiliated with the New America Foundation research center in Washington, Ollivant argued that while Maliki isn’t blameless, the greater threat is al Qaida.

“Politicians make mistakes and miscalculate,” Ollivant wrote online for the journal Foreign Policy. “But the fact remains that a terrorist force is blowing up thousands of Iraqi citizens. What kind of responsible elected official would just sit around and do nothing?”

And that’s where the views of Maliki diverge. A whole cadre of Iraq observers – among them some who advocate more U.S. involvement to quell the latest unrest – would scoff at the notion that the prime minister has performed as a “responsible elected official.” Indeed, they say, the list of his administration’s misdeeds is long and well documented.

Some commentators question the wisdom of the U.S. going after ISIS at all, especially if it aligns the United States with the problematic Maliki administration. Maliki repeatedly has invoked sectarian rhetoric, costing his administration potential Sunni supporters who now feel caught between al Qaida’s dubious offers of protection and a perceived government campaign to subjugate Sunnis.

“If the greatest U.S. concern is the growth of ISIS as a potential threat to the United States, then the best thing it can do is keep far, far away from Maliki,” said Jacqueline L. Hazelton, a professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College. “Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies provide one more rallying point for jihadis.”

By Hannah Allam
McClatchy Washington bureau