President Obama’s decision to send an additional 450 troops to Iraq to train mostly Sunni fighters for the battle to oust the Islamic State is a modest gesture aimed at a very big problem – Iraq’s wide and deepening sectarian divide between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
The new trainers, expected to arrive in Iraq within a few days, will go to a different location from the 3,050 United States soldiers already in Iraq and assisting in the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces.
The difference is that the objective of the new site will be to train and arm Sunnis who have largely been excluded from other efforts at building up Iraq’s security forces. This is a priority that Obama administration officials describe as crucial to the effort to reverse the territorial gains of the Islamic State and ultimately push it out of Iraq.
“It’s critically important to get the Sunnis in the main security forces,” said Elissa Slotkin, assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs, in a teleconference with reporters Wednesday. “That’s another reason we want … US forces on the ground,” she adds, “to help facilitate that conversation” about ensuring that Iraq will “have the military represent the people who are resident in Iraq.”
The new training site at Taqaddum air base is significant – and not just because it was the launch pad for the thousands of US Marines who fought for months in 2007 to take back the nearby city of Fallujah from Sunni insurgents. It was those same extremists who rose from defeat to regroup in war-ravaged Syria and form the Islamic State.
Taqaddum (the Marines simply called it “TQ”) is located outside Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province that Islamic State militants have largely controlled since sweeping into Iraq from Syria a year ago.
Now it will be the goal of the US trainers at TQ to build a fighting force, drawn largely from local Sunni tribes, to spearhead the fight to take back Ramadi, which fell to the Islamic State last month, and begin pushing the extremists out of Anbar.
It is a very tall order – and one that stands virtually no chance of succeeding in the absence of broad political reforms by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad that address the deep marginalization and political exclusion of Iraq’s Sunnis. That alienation has left many Sunnis either indifferent to Islamic State gains or in some cases even sympathetic to them.
Mr. Obama’s order reflects a request from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for more help for the fight to retake lost territory from the Islamic State. But it is also an attempt to emphasize the president’s conviction that no amount of US assistance can succeed without an “inclusive” government in Baghdad and Sunni buy-in to the new Iraq.
Just days ago at the Group of Seven meeting of leading industrialized nations in Germany, Obama essentially said that the US had too many trainers in Iraq already, speaking of “more training capacity than we’ve got recruits.” But Obama has made it clear he believes what’s lacking is a military that includes all of Iraq’s communities – and in particular the disenfranchised Sunnis.
"You've had in the past, some of the Sunni tribes who have not joined the regular Iraqi security forces – because of some of the political tensions and divisions in Iraqi politics over the last several years," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, on the same teleconference. "Part of what we're aiming to do ... is to provide different pipelines for Iraqis to get into the fight under the umbrella of the Iraqi security forces."
Addressing the Iraqi shortcomings after meeting Monday with Mr. Abadi on the margins of the G7 summit, Obama zeroed in on the sectarian factor.
Iraq’s Sunnis are “willing and prepared to fight,” he said, but bringing them into the security forces and training programs “has not been happening as fast as it needs to.”
Obama’s decision is also intended to bolster Abadi, a Shiite politician facing opposition within the Iraqi government to any gestures toward the Sunnis. The administration views Abadi as open to political reforms but hesitant before the stiff headwinds he’s encountering from more-hardline Shiites.
In addition, the plan to empower Iraq’s Sunnis is intended as something of a counterbalance to Iran’s growing influence in Iraq. Iran is advising and equipping the Shiite militias that have filled the void left by a collapsed Iraqi Army and police force.
But those militias have also deepened the wedge between Shiites and Sunnis, with many Shiites welcoming their (and Iran’s) growing influence while Sunnis accuse them of abuses and serving Shiite purposes.
Obama has consistently said the fight to oust the Islamic State is one the Iraqis have to win themselves, and Wednesday’s announcement only underscores that perspective. By sending 450 additional trainers to Iraq, Obama can hardly hope to heal Iraq’s sectarian divide. But the step may at least test whether the Iraqi will and intent are there to do it.