Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Monday he wouldn't allow any foreign troops into the country to help retake territory lost to a Sunni Arab uprising being led by the so-called Islamic State.
His comments were widely reported. But the following remark arguably didn't get sufficient attention: “We don’t need foreign combat troops. And there is no country in the world which would be willing to fight here and give you back your land even if they were asked to," he said.
Mr. Abadi's comment is in stark contrast in recent history. In 2011 his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, who hails from the same Shiite Islamist Dawa Party, effectively kicked the US out of the country. Under the terms of a 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by President George W. Bush, the US had to leave the country by 2012 unless a new arrangement could be made.
A key demand for the US in Iraq – as it is pretty much everywhere – was that US troops would be exempt from Iraqi prosecution. Mr. Maliki refused, and off the US went, honoring its promise to respect Iraq's sovereignty.
The complete drawdown of US forces helped set the stage for Iraq's resumed civil war under Maliki's sectarian leadership that put the boot on the necks of much of the country's Sunni Arab population, especially the tribal fighters who, with US support, helped turn the tide against the Islamic State's predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq.
But now Abadi has effectively said that if given a chance the US would have designs on Iraqi territory. His comment that foreign help isn't needed is risible – the failures of the Iraqi army in Mosul and Anbar provinces show that. But his comments, while popular in Iraq, could further endanger any US troops there.
Though IS is the biggest problem in Iraq, the jihadis have company. The proliferation of Shiite militias since 2003, some of which have been allowed to infiltrate the police forces, is a major reason for public distrust of the central government. Both the military and the cops have engaged in extortion and worse of the civilian population. But the Shiite militias frequently go one better.
Consider this story from Agence France-Presse's Ammar Karim, which recounts how a female relative of Kurdish Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Roz Nuri Shaways was kidnapped by the powerful Shiite Asaib Ahl al-Haq ("League of the Righteous") in Basra last month. Her captors brought her from the southern city to Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood (immediately across the Tigris River from the International Zone) but on Monday evening she managed to escape, after prying a window open with a spoon.
She quickly alerted police, which said her captors had been seeking $1.6 million in ransom from her family. Then, the real trouble started:
"We initially thought that the kidnappers were an extortion gang but by the time reinforcements arrived, a large number of militiamen showed up," another police officer told AFP. "They said that the policemen should hand back the hostage or would all be killed."
The men from Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which has ties to Iran and has been fighting alongside police and army forces against IS jihadists, then blocked off the street with their sport utility vehicles.
Police had to send in an armoured personnel carrier to smash through the militia's roadblock and were met with a deluge of gunfire.
This is the environment that a few hundred US military advisers and diplomats are operating in, not in the badlands of Anbar but in the heart of Baghdad. And hatred for the US runs fairly deep among the country's Shiite militias, as AFP reported, citing a policeman in Baghdad.
"Those militiamen never respect our checkpoints and we have been having increasing trouble with them lately," said the officer at a nearby post who gave his name as Ali. "We don't have the necessary support from above to deal with them. We get official orders to stop them from moving freely and carrying weapons but there is no way we can implement such decisions," the officer said.
You would think that Abadi, who is reliant on US weapons, training support, and airstrikes to hold off IS, would try not to inflame anti-American sentiments in Iraq. But apparently not.