In Iraq, battle to oust Islamic State outstrips needed political reforms

A joint US-Iraq statement marking the Iraqi prime minister’s visit to Washington this week cited two encouraging steps that the new Iraqi government has taken. But huge challenges remain in the fight against the Islamic State.

Susan Walsh/AP
Vice President Joe Biden talks with Iraq's Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi during a session of the US-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee, April 16, in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington.

When the Pentagon announced this week that Islamic State fighters have been pushed out of more than a quarter of the Iraqi territory they invaded and laid claim to last year, the missing element of that cautiously upbeat assessment was Iraq’s political environment.

US officials, beginning with President Obama, have said since last summer that the Sunni Islamist extremists would not be uprooted and defeated unless the Iraqi government took vigorous steps to address the Sunni Arab community’s political estrangement.

Yet despite some small rays of progress since Haider al-Abadi became prime minister last September, the Shiite Muslim majority has relinquished little in the way of political power and the government has accomplished few meaningful steps to heal Iraq’s deep sectarian divides, some Iraq experts say.

“There still have been no real overtures or even grand gestures to the Sunni community to erase their doubts that they won’t just be second-class citizens in Iraq, and that’s taking a toll,” says Wayne White, a former State Department specialist on Iraq who is now a scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“There have been some statements by Abadi,” he adds, “but that doesn’t cut it. We’ve seen nothing that would be a game changer.”

The Abadi government has taken some steps that it vaunts as signs of its determination to include all Iraq’s sectarian groups, particularly the Sunnis, in key functions, including building up security forces.

The government has transferred thousands of rifles and other weaponry to the Sunni “tribal fighters” engaged in the fight to oust the Islamic State (IS). That step is seen by some as a sign of trust that the Sunni tribes are on the same side as the government in the fight with IS and that the arms won’t end up turned against pro-government forces.

Mr. Abadi also recently got a budget through parliament, the first time Iraq’s mainly sectarian-based political parties have come together on revenue use and sharing in several years.

The White House cited both steps in the joint US-Iraq statement marking Abadi’s visit to Washington this week and his Oval Office meeting Tuesday.

The statement also underscores Abadi’s “priority” of implementing the “ambitious” 18-point national program that his government adopted under US pressure. It emphasizes a devolution of powers and some security responsibilities to provincial governments and communities.

But nothing near the significant reforms for the Iraqi government to work for all Iraq’s communities has even started, regional analysts say.

“Abadi has done a little here and a little there, but that is tinkering,” says Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. Big-ticket issues from power sharing and Army reform to services delivery aren’t being addressed, he notes. “The ISIS crisis is detracting from all of these really critical challenges,” he says, using another acronym for the self-described Islamic State.

The worst mistake the Iraqi government made was to launch its offensive against IS too early, starting with the battle for Tikrit last month, Mr. Sayigh says. Tikrit may have been wrested from IS control, he notes, but at the cost of relying on Shiite militias rather than waiting for the Iraqi Army to be prepared to take on the fight.

Moreover, he says, the lack of a political plan for retaken areas means that the government was not prepared to stabilize and resettle Tikrit. Thus that first battle, he says, raises broader questions about what happens when IS is defeated.

“In Iraq everyone is focused on pushing back ISIS and defeating it, but what if that operation is successful, what happens the day after?” he says. “Is the Iraqi state any more viable the day after it is defeated?”

That question of post-conquest administration and the difficulties encountered in retaking the relatively small city of Tikrit appear to be pushing back the timetable for launching the much-anticipated campaign to push IS out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Holding and securing Mosul will be a much more complex test of Iraq’s military and political capacities.

And one thing the battle for Tikrit revealed is that Iraq’s security forces are hardly capable of securing and holding areas taken back from IS. “We’re seeing that it’s not going well over there,” says Mr. White of the Middle East Institute. “The Army is not standing up as soon as we thought.”

This means that places once thought secure or out of IS reach are not. IS militants recently fought their way into the sprawling and symbolically important Baiji oil refinery complex in northern Iraq – scene of fierce fighting last year. And this week, IS fighters have been advancing on the Sunni provincial capital of Ramadi, less than 80 miles west of Baghdad.

It also means the Iraqi government is relying more on sectarian militias than on a unified Army and police force, and that likely will come back to bite Iraq after IS is pushed out, White says.

The growing reliance on sectarian paramilitaries does not bode well for a unified and politically inclusive Iraq, and may instead reflect the inability to undertake crucial political and social reforms needed not just in Iraq but also across much of the Arab Middle East, regional experts say.

Even the United States appears to have resigned itself to dealing with an Iraqi government that talks reform but remains beholden to sectarian forces and to the Shiite power structure, White says.

After Defense Secretary Ashton Carter originally ruled out any US cooperation with the Shiite militias that fought for Tikrit, White says the US position “slipped” to demanding that Iraqi government forces have “oversight” of the forces involved in a fight.

“That does not leave the government in a position to prevent the [Shiite] militias from committing atrocities and further alienating the Sunni population,” White says. “But that kind of ‘close overwatch’ the US wants to see is not possible with the political situation in Baghdad.”

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