How badly is the civil war in Iraq spiraling out of control? Here's a clue: Baghdad's battle to retake Anbar Province is called "Labaik Ya Hussein."
What does that mean? That the fight in Anbar is now nakedly sectarian. "Ya Hussein" is a cry of veneration and mourning for the prophet Muhammad's grandson, known as Imam Hussein to Shiites. And it is being taken by the Sunni Arab majority in Anbar, and others in Iraq, as signaling a role of conquerors, not liberators, for the Shiite militias leading the fight.
The recent fall of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar and just 70 miles west of Baghdad, to the so-called Islamic State has clearly jolted the US government. It also exposed the false claims from Washington and Baghdad that IS Sunni militants were being pushed back in Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq. While Baghdad has complained there was insufficient US air support at Ramadi, the IS army had no air support at all and fielded fewer combatants than the Iraqi soldiers and police trying to defend the city.
But the attackers had something Ramadi's defenders appeared to lack: a driving sense of purpose. IS wants to impose its will over as much of Iraq as possible for starters, and ultimately carry that mission to the world. Its fighters feel they're carrying out God's work, and are more than willing to die for the cause, as evinced by the waves of suicide bombers in their assault on Ramadi and other targets.
Ramadi's defenders, on the other hand, certainly don't appear to have been inspired by much more than their paychecks. Dying for Iraq was something few of them were willing to do, which helps explain the panicked government retreat from the city, similar to the wave of desertions that saw IS easily conquer Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, last June.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter laid out the administration's view of what happened in an interview with CNN on Sunday.
"What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight," he said. "They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight. They withdrew from the site, and that says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves."
While the comment infuriated Baghdad, Mr. Carter clearly has a point. If the Iraqi Army, backed by the country's vast oil reserves, and trained and equipped to the tune of billions of dollars by the US over a decade, isn't capable of fighting to hold its own territory by now, when will it be?
The answer of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, and his allies to this "will to fight" issue has been to turn up the sectarianism. Within a day of Ramadi's fall, Mr. Abadi vowed to send Shiite militias to take the city. On Tuesday, a militia spokesman said on national television that the Hashid Shaabi – an umbrella group for a number of Shiite militias, many with ties to political parties in government – are firmly in charge.
"The Labaik Ya Hussein operation is led by the Hashid Shaabi in cooperation and coordination with the armed forces there," militia spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi said at the televised press conference. "We believe that liberating Ramadi will not take long."
Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian Quds Force commander who has been coordinating Iranian support for Iraq's Shiite militias, has seized on the fall of Ramadi and the expanding role for his militia allies. "Obama has not done a damn thing so far to confront Daesh," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS. "Doesn't that show that there is no will in America to confront it?"
Iraq has moved steadily into Iran's orbit since the US deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003. While the US has been somewhat constrained by its fears of empowering militias that were involved in some of the worst atrocities of Iraq's last civil war, which had cooled somewhat by 2008, the Islamic Republic has few such concerns. Iran's agenda is Shiite Arab hegemony in Iraq, which puts it in sync with the country's dominant Shiite political parties and movements.
The Sunni-dominated government of Saddam Hussein brutally oppressed Shiite religious and political expression, including banning the annual pilgrimage of hundreds of thousands of the faithful to the ancient city of Karbala to commemorate the death of Hussein. As I wrote a few years ago following an Al Qaeda in Iraq suicide attack that killed 50 pilgrims in Karbala:
The symbolic power of the time and place of this bombing can't be ignored. Millions of Shiite pilgrims are descending on Karbala for Arbain, the culmination of a 40-day mourning cycle for Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, whose death along with a ragged band of followers on the plain outside of Karbala at the hands of an army of the Sunni Caliph Yazid in 680 A.D. marks the definitive split of Islam into its two great sects. Hundreds of thousands are making the trip on foot, and there have been scattered attacks on pilgrims making their way to Karbala in recent days.
The pilgrimage was banned under Saddam Hussein, who feared its potential as a political rallying point for Iraq's majority Shiites, who were very much second-class citizens during his rule. Chauvinists like Al Qaeda in Iraq, who view Shiites as traitors to the one true faith, hate the pilgrimage and the deviation from their own religious practices it represents.
What's happening now is that a group of Shiite militias, marching under the banner of God and with the names of their great historic martyrs on their lips, are marching into battle. Their enemy is a Sunni jihadi militia, which marches under the banner of God and with the names of their great historic martyrs on their lips. When two such forces clash, civilians caught in between have few good options.
Meanwhile, some architects of the US war in Iraq are now calling for a US policy of partition of the country because of the difficulty of keeping it together. Exhibit A is John Bolton, who served in the Bush Administration at the State Department and then as US ambassador to the UN. He spoke on Fox over the weekend:
The Arabs divided between Sunnis and Shias – I think the Sunni Arabs are never going to agree to be in a state where the Shia outnumber them 3-1. That's what ISIS has been able to take advantage of.
I think our objective should be a new Sunni state out of the western part of Iraq, the eastern part of Syria run by moderates or at least authoritarians who are not radical Islamists. What's left of the state of Iraq, as of right now, is simply a satellite of the ayatollahs in Tehran. It's not anything we should try to aid.
Mr. Bolton did not explain how the US might create a new Sunni Arab "moderate" dictatorship in places like Anbar, where moderation appears to be an ever scarcer commodity.