Iraqi plan to defeat Islamic State: Too light on political steps?

Such steps will be necessary to reduce the appeal of Islamic State in Sunni-majority areas, many say. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will present his plan for retaking Anbar province at a Paris meeting Tuesday.

Hadi Mizban/AP
Fighters from the Badr Brigades Shiite militia clash with Islamic State militant group on the outskirts of Fallujah, Iraq, on Monday.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will present his plan for retaking his country’s Anbar province from Islamic State militants at a Paris meeting Tuesday of the international coalition that was set up last year to rid Iraq and Syria of the extremist group.

Mr. Abadi’s plan looks likely to focus on military steps to be taken to root out the self-described Islamic State (IS) and measures to “stabilize” areas once IS is pushed out.

But it may be light on the political steps that coalition leaders and regional experts say will be necessary to reduce the appeal of the Sunni extremist group in Sunni-majority areas like Anbar.

Last week, in previewing the Paris meeting, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that the coalition established by President Obama had “linked” its support for Iraq to “political commitments” by Baghdad to implement an “inclusive policy” to win back the confidence of Iraq’s marginalized Sunnis.

“This contract is what justified our military engagement,” Mr. Fabius told French lawmakers.

But the five-point plan Abadi will present in Paris doesn’t seem to say much about political measures, instead largely laying out the steps to be employed in the counteroffensive to take Anbar back from IS militants.

The plan does include the “key element” of “mobilizing the tribes of Anbar,” according to a senior State Department official who discussed the Paris meeting with journalists Monday. In an initial recruiting effort among Anbar’s Sunni Arab tribes, the government has signed up 800 “tribal fighters” to join in the battle for Anbar. Those fighters will “receive a paycheck from the state,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the Iraqi plan freely.

But little about the rest of the plan seems aimed at addressing Iraq’s deep sectarian tensions – tensions that IS militants capitalized on when they swept into Iraq from their base in Syria a year ago.

The plan calls for bringing new recruits into the Iraqi Army and recalling the thousands of police officers who fled when IS militants overran the provincial capital of Ramadi last month. And it includes a pointed effort to establish Iraqi government “command and control” over all the armed forces engaged in the battle to take back Anbar.

The last point appears aimed at easing concerns over the allegiances of Iran-backed Shiite militias that have been called into the fight.

Abadi’s plan also calls for creation of an internationally funded program to stabilize areas taken back from IS to enable displaced residents to return quickly. “It’s essential to flood resources back in” to clean up streets, begin repairs, and make reclaimed areas habitable again, says the State Department official.

Tuesday’s meeting in Paris will bring together about 20 of the most engaged members of the 60-country coalition set up to “degrade and destroy” IS in Iraq and Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry was supposed to attend the meeting, but he returned to the United States Monday after suffering a broken leg while on a cycling outing in the French countryside Saturday. Secretary Kerry still plans to take part in the meeting remotely if technical arrangements can be worked out in time, State Department officials said.

In addition to hearing from Abadi, the Paris meeting will review coalition efforts to thwart IS, which include cutting off its funding sources and stanching the steady flow of foreign fighters setting out from Western and Muslim countries to take up arms for IS.

IS has seen its revenues reduced, but the group still takes in millions of dollars a month in illicit oil sales and increasingly from extortion, experts in terrorist funding say.

Mr. Obama made cutting off the flow of foreign fighters a priority of his anti-IS strategy. Yet while “sender” countries including the US have made some progress in detecting IS recruits and detaining them before they leave their home soil, there is also ample evidence that foreigners continue to reach Iraq and Syria – primarily through Turkey.

Indeed, the IS strategy for taking Ramadi consisted of sending an initial wave of explosives-laden military vehicles – thought to have been driven by foreign-fighter suicide bombers – to break down defenses and create a path into the city for IS fighters.

That same tactic was employed Monday in a suicide attack on a police base northwest of Baghdad. About 40 police, army soldiers, and Shiite militiamen died when an explosives-rigged Humvee barreled into the police base that was also being used as a staging area for the Anbar counteroffensive.

The US recently agreed to provide Iraq with 2,000 antitank systems with the specific intention of stopping the devastating suicide bombings – many of which are carried out with American armored vehicles captured by IS when it seized control of a number of army bases across Iraq.

“Nearly all of the suicide bombers in Iraq are foreign fighters [who] come into Iraq to kill Iraqis,” says the US official. Stopping those bombings “will be absolutely critical” if Iraqi forces, including local tribal fighters, are to be coaxed back into the anti-IS fight.

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