The sprawling Baiji refinery, 200 km (130 miles) north of the capital near Tikrit, is a battlefield. Iraqi troops are holding off Sunni fighters outside Samarra. Insurgents from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have gained more ground moving into two towns in the eastern province of Diayala with security forces retreating without a fight. The towns of Saadiyah and Jalawla had fallen to the insurgents, as well as several other villages around the Himreen Mountains. The fighters have vowed to carry their offensive south to Najaf and Kerbala, seats of Shi'ite Islam since the Middle Ages. Kurdish formations advanced to Kirkuk to head the ISIS militants off. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is waiting for a U.S. response to its appeal for air strikes.
US at crossroads
President Obama held a private meeting with congressional leaders on June 18 to discuss whether he would be required to ask Congress for permission to take military action against Sunni fighters in Iraq or just keep it posted. There was no decision publicly announced, the President only reviewed his options with congressional leaders. So far the White House has publicly dodged questions about whether Obama might seek congressional approval if he decides to take military action. At present the President says a return to combat in Iraq is not in the cards. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, «We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power». Asked whether the United States should honor that request, he answered indirectly, «It is in our national security interest to counter ISIL wherever we find them».
The debates to authorize the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq more than a decade ago were contentious. Today many lawmakers are wary of taking up the issue again. Anyway it would not meet the interests of Democrats in the election year.
Having left Iraq, the U.S. has a range of ground, air and sea troops and assets in the region. There are six warships in the Persian Gulf, including the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush accompanied by other warships, like the cruiser USS Philippines Sea and the destroyer USS Truxtun – both capable of launching cruise missiles against land targets. The surface ships group includes the amphibious transport ship USS Mesa Verde, which is carrying about 550 Marines and five V-22 Osprey hybrid aircraft.
There are about 5,000 U.S. soldiers across the Iraqi border in Kuwait as part of a routine rotational presence. Air Force aircraft capable of a full range of missions are deployed in the region. According to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, they include F-15E, F-16 and F-22 fighters; B-1 bombers, A-10 attack jets, B-1B bombers; KC-135 tankers; C-17 and C-130 transports and an array of unmanned vehicles.
The US has basing arrangements with numerous countries throughout the Middle East, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, including intelligence gathering and surveillance assets. ISIS is a fast-moving force, mounted largely in light vehicles. In some circumstances distinguishing them from civilians on the move may be difficult. The US might need some Special Forces teams on the ground to work with the Iraqi military to help designate and identify targets. Additional assets could be brought into the Middle East, if necessary, Secretary James said. Even after the United States redeployed its military forces from Iraq at the end of 2011, it maintained a strong military presence in the Gulf region, with more than 35,000 troops deployed there.
The US has a major security and military cooperation package in place with Iraq’s government to provide a pipeline of arms and hundreds of military advisors worth $13.225 billion in 2013 and 2014 alone. The United States has maintained a presence of more than 5,500 diplomats, intelligence professionals, military advisors, and defense contractors to support Iraq. In total, the United States and Iraq have plans in place for a major arming and equipping program that could top $25 billion total arms sales if fully implemented, including 140 M1A1 tanks, 36 F-16 combat aircraft, the Integrated Air Defense System, and Apache attack helicopters.
The Obama administration is indicating that it wants a new government in Iraq without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, convinced the Shiite leader is unable to reconcile with the nation's Sunni minority and stabilize a volatile political landscape. Iraq's political parties should form a new government without him to include the Sunni and Kurdish communities. The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) told a congressional hearing Wednesday: «The Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation». John Kerry put it even more bluntly, «If there is a clear successor, if the results of the election are respected, if people come together with the cohesiveness necessary to build a legitimate government that puts the reforms in place that people want, that might wind up being very salutatory», he told Yahoo News.
Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told a congressional hearing: «This current government in Iraq has never fulfilled the commitments it made to bring a unity government together with the Sunnis, the Kurds, and the Shia». Senator John McCain has gone further – and called on Maliki to step down.
ISIS was able to quickly seize towns across northern and central Iraq while the U.S.-trained and equipped security forces, weakened by Maliki’s politicization of their leadership and exclusion of Sunnis, quickly retreated. Iraq is back on the brink of all-out sectarian civil war. Like the civil war in Syria next door, the new fighting threatens to draw in regional neighbors.
Maliki says his security forces suffered a “setback” but are not been defeated. His security spokesman, Lieutenant General Qassem Atta, said security forces would shortly retake full control of Tal Afar, a Shiite town in the north that lies along a strategic corridor to Syria. It would provide a springboard to launch operations to recapture Mosul. ISIS’s actions in Iraq this past week provoked a swift reaction from Iraq’s fragmented powers: Kurdish Peshmerga forces seized the oil-rich city of Kirkuk; Shia militias mobilized in the streets after an initial call to arms from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani; and Iraq’s neighbors have already started to mobilize with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard reportedly moving forces into Iraq. Turkey, which has seen dozens of its citizens detained by ISIS, faces substantial threats from the extremist group and could reengage in cross-border military operations in Iraq as it did over the past decade.
Saudi Arabia warned of the risks of a civil war in Iraq with unpredictable consequences for the region, while the United Arab Emirates recalled its envoy to Baghdad, voicing concern over “exclusionary and sectarian policies”. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a statement on June 18 declaring he was prepared to intervene and protect Iraq's great shrines visited by millions of Shi'ite pilgrims annually.
Iraqi forces dissipated being poorly trained, led by incompetent commanders and surrounded by predominantly hostile Sunni population in the area. Advancing south the Islamists would meet more resistance. About 60% of Iraqis are Shiites. The hate ISIS just as much as Sunnis in the northwest hate them and the central authoroties. In the east ISIS will have to face seasoned and staunch warriors of the Kurdish Peshmerga. With the first stunning victory held, it won’t be a plain sailing for ISIS, as many predict. But ceding ground in Iraq will make ISIS go across the border into Syria making the Bashar Assad’s government and the US face the same enemy.
US Middle East policy ended up in failure
In the past three years, the entire Middle East has plunged into chaos. The rise of non-state actors such as ISIS is a general trend. In 2003 the US invaded Iraq and unleashed the fragmentation and radicalization process. Instead of promised democracy and prosperity Iraq turned into a hotbed of Shia-Sunni-Kurds sectarian tensions. The rising clout of Iran entailed fragmentation of political forces in the states with predominant Sunni population. The war in Syria pours fuel on the fire of raging regional conflict. The expansion of ISIS threatens to collapse Iraq and to destabilize the Gulf Arab states, Jordan, Turkey, spreading to Central Asia and many other states. The extended U.S. military operations, that have lasted over ten years, have brought no positive results. ISIS provides, feeds, and sustains terrorists who could launch attacks against Western Europe and the U.S. The second 9/11 may occur any time again. The US should demonstrate the wonders of extremely artful statecraft to remedy the situation at least to some extent.
The US popular opinion views the military campaign in Iraq as a big foreign policy gaffe and opposes any nation’s involvement in new overseas conflicts. Any new military action would be strongly opposed by a majority of Americans. Neither the US, nor NATO can do anything more than air strikes. It makes Iran the only regional player to come to the Iraq’s rescue. Bringing in a Shia power could shift Iraqi Sunnis sympathies into the ISIS favor turning the situation into a clear-cut religious war, with the possibility of what the world has already been stunned by – mass «cleansing» of civilians on ethnic and religious grounds with brutality raging across the country. To prevent that the fighting must be ended quickly. The US should think long and hard about the implications of what it does in the Middle East. So far it regional policy has been a miserable failure and the mistakes committed backlash with dire fallout.