The visit of Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar Abadi to Washington this week will test whether the White House has any Mideast strategy beyond a nuclear deal with Iran.
Even administration optimists have revised naive hopes that an accord would stabilize the region.
“We can do two things at the same time,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the PBS Newshour, meaning negotiate while standing up to Iranian interference in Yemen. The bigger question is whether the White House has a strategy to offset Iran’s drive to dominate the region (a drive that is fueling sectarian wars in several Arab countries).
The test case is Iraq.
Abadi arrives as the war against ISIS is heating up within Iraq, the main battlefield for that struggle. But the Iraqi fight is being undercut by the machinations of Tehran.
Our ill-planned Iraq war — and the heedless way President Obama quit Iraq in 2011 — boosted Iran’s influence in the region and in Baghdad. Shiite Iran shares an 875-mile border with Iraq and a large majority of Iraqis are Shiites, so Iran will inevitably influence the country, but Obama’s uninterest left a vacuum the Iranians eagerly filled.
The previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite sectarian, intensified links with Tehran. He politicized Iraq’s army, which collapsed when ISIS seized the city of Mosul. Abadi is an Iraqi nationalist rather than a sectarian. He is trying to rebuild the Iraqi army — with U.S. help — but this will be a long process.
In the meantime, Shiite militias, some closely allied with Iran, have led the fight to liberate areas held by ISIS. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, has preened for photographers alongside Iraqi Shiite fighting groups.
Yet the occupied areas are populated largely by Sunni civilians, who are fearful of the Shiite militias — and of Tehran. Those areas won’t be liberated unless local Sunnis rise up against ISIS.
Here is where the United States has a critical role to play.
In recent weeks, Shiite militiamen tried to drive ISIS fighters out of Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit without the Iraqi army. They sought to show Iraqis that no U.S. help was needed. Their goal is to take over Iraq’s army from within.
But the Shiite militiamen failed. They had to let the army call in U.S. air support to help take Tikrit.
This is a teachable moment — and shows the need for the United States to help Iraq find a new balance. “We are not denying Iran is there,” says the Iraqi ambassador to Washington, Lukman Faily. “But we need everyone to help.”
“The Iraqis were the first on the ground,” he adds, referring to the fact that Iran rushed to send in weapons and supplies when ISIS threatened Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Erbil. “Others came in late,” he told me, a reference to the slow U.S. response. “We accepted that [Iranian] help, but we need to set boundaries. We don’t want to rely solely on Iran. Their weapons are less sophisticated than U.S. weapons, and we want less collateral damage.”
So now is the moment for Washington to strengthen Abadi’s hand and enable him to balance the role of Iran.
Take note: Abadi is a far cry from Maliki. He talks to groups and sects. He is the commander-in-chief of Iraq’s battered army, even though Soleimani may try to present himself in that role. Abadi knows that Sunni areas can’t be liberated, let alone held, unless Sunnis believe they have a future in Iraq.
“We are trying to reconcile [Sunni] tribes into the process,” insists Faily. Indeed, Abadi has reached out to Anbar province’s Sunni leaders, who were alienated from Maliki. There are ongoing discussions about freeing Sunni civilians, swept up by Maliki’s forces, and permitting elected Sunni leaders who had fled into exile to return. “Everyone sees reconciliation [between Shiites and Sunnis] as essential now,” Faily says.
U.S. forces are training a few thousand local security troops in Anbar, although they have been given only light weapons by Baghdad. The Shiite-dominated national parliament is still unwilling to form and arm Sunni national guard units.
I asked Faily what Abadi needs from Washington now.
First, he said, the United States should intercede with Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia to help Iraq. When Maliki was prime minister, Iraq’s Sunni neighbors were wary. But now, says Faily, “we face an acid test for the region to stand by Iraq and not let it be cornered.”
Second, says Faily, Iraq needs accelerated U.S. aid in rebuilding its army, along with close security coordination in the coming campaign against ISIS. “There is a regional narrative where Iraq is viewed as with or against Iran,” says Faily. “Don’t force us to make that choice. We have to deal with everyone, but we want more U.S. help.”
Past U.S. policies have helped push Iraq into Iranian arms. Now there is an opportunity to restore a balance, if Obama is willing to focus on Iraq in a way he has not done in the last six years.
Leave Iraq to Gen. Soleimani, and ISIS will remain inside Mosul while Iran controls Baghdad and the oil-rich south. Make a clear commitment to stand by Abadi, and his hand will be strengthened in fighting ISIS and reconciling with Sunnis. This is one key way to send a message to Iran that there are limits to its regional power grab.