Militants on March in Iraq Undo What U.S. Sought Post-Saddam

Jun 12, 2014 11:45 am ET

(Updates with McCain comments beginning in eighth paragraph.)

June 12 (Bloomberg) -- Islamic militants’ sweep through northern Iraq and the collapse of the Iraqi army threaten to undo whatever was accomplished after the U.S. invaded the country and ousted dictator Saddam Hussein 11 years ago.

America and Europe now face the creation of a de facto militant Sunni Islamic state along the Syrian-Iraqi border that can serve as a safe haven and training zone for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, a group with a declared interest in attacking the West that no country in the region can control.

For U.S. President Barack Obama, who’s built his foreign policy legacy on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the militants’ swift victories raise questions about his 2011 decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq and his reluctance to help arm moderate Syrian rebels fighting Sunni extremists in that country.

“Now, in the middle of the Middle East, we have a big, gaping hole where the Iraqi-Syrian border has broken down,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s a threat to the regional security architecture, the boundaries of the region we’re invested in, and a threat to a lot of the assets we’ve built up inside Iraq.”

The Obama administration hasn’t responded so far to a request last month from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to mount air attacks against militant training camps in western Iraq, according to two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations. One of the officials said Obama is reluctant to revisit a war that he opposed and repeatedly has declared over.

U.S. Options

The administration is weighing options including expedited equipment and training for the Iraqi military, according to a White House official who also asked not to be identified. Some money may eventually come from a $5 billion fund that Obama has asked Congress to approve to help U.S. allies fight terrorism.

The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee held a closed-door briefing from Pentagon officials today on the situation in Iraq.

“Our failure to leave forces behind in Iraq was the reason” that country now is at risk of collapse, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has long denounced Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and now Afghanistan, told reporters after the briefing.

McCain said Obama should fire “his entire national security team, which has been a total failure.” He called for a review of all options in Iraq, short of U.S. troops on the ground. “Air strikes may be part of it,” he said.

American Lives

The Iraq war cost 4,490 Americans their lives, according to Defense Department data, and could cost U.S. taxpayers more than $2 trillion, according to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The best estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties exceed 125,000.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, a group with regional ambitions and significant numbers of Western recruits, has long held areas in Anbar province to Baghdad’s west. It now has seized oil-rich areas north of the capital, including Tikrit and parts of Kirkuk province, after taking Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Those changes are probably “semi-permanent,” said Michael Knights, a fellow with the Washington Institute. ISIL can be expected to “consolidate their hold on huge swaths of Iraq, cutting the country into three pieces” along ethnic and geographic lines, he said, an outcome the U.S. had sought to avoid during its occupation of the country from 2003 to 2011.

‘Warning Signs’

“This is not an out-of-the-blue development,” said Knights, echoing other analysts who pointed to U.S. and Iraqi policy choices that have fueled events. “It’s the culmination of many trends, warning signs ignored, enlightened paths not taken by the Iraqi government. This is a game-changing moment in the country’s security.”

Knights and other analysts, two U.S. intelligence officials, and a former Bush administration official who helped set Iraq policy said the return of Sunni extremism and the collapse of the Iraqi military are traceable in part to a series of American and Iraqi policy blunders over the years. The current and former officials asked not to be identified discussing internal policy debates.

After the decision to invade Iraq, the first mistake, said the former Bush administration official, was the May 16, 2003, U.S. edict purging all members of the Saddam’s Baath Party from the military and security services -- a move that to the puzzlement of some officials exceeded President George W. Bush’s order to de-Baathify the military only down to the rank of battalion commander.

Shiite Rule

The second blunder cited is Maliki’s use of his government and the military as a tool to enforce Shiite Muslim rule after years of Saddam’s minority Sunni oppression.

The result now, said one of the U.S. intelligence officials, is that it’s hardly surprising to find Sunni soldiers unwilling to fight others of their religion, no matter how extreme, on behalf of a Shiite government.

Given the way that Maliki “provoked, marginalized, and mistreated” Sunni Muslims, “it’s a surprise it’s taken so long for Sunnis to react,” said Wayne White, a former State Department official who worked on Iraq, off and on, beginning in the 1970s.

Maliki’s Role

The Obama administration rejects any linkage between the fall of northern Iraq and Maliki’s approach. When asked yesterday if the U.S. saw Maliki’s failure to govern inclusively as an element in the insurgency, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “absolutely not.” The U.S. does call for Iraqi national unity in the face of the ISIL attack, she said.

The former Bush administration official flagged another issue: Obama had little choice but to withdraw the last American forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, when an agreement couldn’t be reached granting them immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts, the former official said. Their departure, however, undid both the gains made rebuilding Iraqi security and the progress that the “surge” of U.S. forces in Anbar and other Sunni provinces made toward marginalizing Sunni extremists.

“We shouldn’t have walked away from Iraq,” said Ken Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy group, pointing to the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw all troops. Pollack says that a troop presence would have dealt with the fear and mistrust that characterizes inter-communal conflicts and curbed Maliki’s ability to make sectarian power grabs.

Syrian Opposition

“This is nothing 10,000 or 20,000 troops couldn’t have fixed,” Pollack said.

Tabler pointed to the administration’s decision not to arm the moderate Syrian opposition, which has been fighting ISIL in Syria, even as it also combats Syrian President Bashar al- Assad’s troops.

The administration’s “approach to Syria has been to say that it’s containable, that we don’t need to get more involved,” Tabler said. “Well, it’s not containable. It’s spilling over into Lebanon and Iraq, and only becoming more extremist in nature.”

Compounding the problem, said one of the U.S. intelligence officials, is that training of Iraqi special forces has focused almost exclusively on combating limited local insurgencies, not the type of offensive that ISIL has mounted this week.

‘Real Army’

ISIL is highly organized, disciplined, and battle-hardened, “a real army” equipped with anti-aircraft guns, .50 caliber sniper rifles and heavy machine guns, according to Douglas Ollivant, a senior vice president at Mantid International, a global consulting firm with offices in Washington and Baghdad. The group also has at least hundreds of members with European Union passports, according to Ollivant.

The speed and extent of the ISIL offensive and the disintegration of Iraqi forces, who left almost all their weaponry and equipment for ISIL to collect, has caught the Obama administration off-guard, said the two intelligence officials.

The more than $14 billion in foreign military assistance that the U.S. has provided to Iraq since 2005 includes F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters and M-16 and M-4 rifles, and the U.S. has been training Iraqi forces in Jordan and elsewhere. At least two F-16s are scheduled for delivery to Iraq this fall, and the country will lease six Apaches for training later this year, two U.S. defense officials said yesterday.

Captured Weapons

So far, the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said they’ve seen no evidence that the Sunni militants have picked up Hellfire anti- armor missiles or other weapons that could threaten American, Israeli or other forces in the region.

There is some evidence, they said, that ISIL is delivering some captured weapons, including machine guns, rifles and vehicles, to its fellow militants in Syria.

Asked about reports that ISIL has captured tanks and ammunition, Psaki said the U.S. is “trying to obtain confirmation on what assets ISIL may have obtained on the ground.” The situation on the ground, she said, “is very murky.”

--With assistance from Mike Dorning, John Walcott and David Lerman in Washington.