What Does Growing Violence in Iraq Mean for the United States?
Iraq has erupted in increased violence over the last month with extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — ISIS or ISIL for the Levant region encompassing Syria – a group that is steadily gaining control in Iraq after crossing over from the Syrian region. ISIS has taken control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, as well as Tikrit, with threats to gain ground on Baghdad.
The heightened military strain combined with an overrun Iraqi military there has resulted in appeals to the U.S. for aid. One request came from Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, according to The New York Times, which states that he privately requested airstrikes from the U.S. but that the request was rejected by the Obama Administration. “We are not going to get into details of our diplomatic discussions. The current focus of our discussions with the government of Iraq and our policy considerations is to build the capacity of the Iraqis to successfully confront” the extremist attacks, said National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan to The NYT.
“The United States will stand with Iraqi leaders across the political spectrum as they forge the national unity necessary to succeed in the fight against ISIL,” read a statement from the White House Office of the Press Secretary. “We will work with Congress to support the new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, which will provide flexibility and resources to help Iraq respond to emerging needs as the terrorist threat from ISIL continues to evolve.”
Also mentioned was the Strategic Framework Agreement, which outlines the continued support role the U.S. will take after withdrawing from the region. The U.S. has put a great deal of funding towards military aid and development in Iraq since it began withdrawing troops. A Defense Department official told CNN that approximately $15 billion in U.S. funding has been put towards materials, training, and other resources. This includes rockets for helicopter, machine guns, and other weaponry, and $1 billion is currently being routed towards further supplies. Iraq has asked the U.S. to utilize drones in order to help find and target insurgents, something a senior official told The Washington Post is being considered.
There are a number of reasons suggested for why extremists forces have been so successful in overwhelming government forces in Iraq, some critical of the U.S. policy there and others critical of the Prime Minister Maliki. Professor Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics and Political Science gave one explanation for the strong organization and tactics of ISIS, pointing out that when the U.S. invaded “hundreds, if not thousands, of skilled officers of Saddam Hussein’s,” then left to join ISIS. “[This] has allowed ISIS to basically have skills, to have motivation, to have command and control. It’s a mini-army fighting both in Iraq and Syria,” said Professor Gerges to CNN.
Others, such as former Army Cavalry officer Douglas Ollivant, say that combatants faced while the U.S. was in Iraq were nothing compared to this. “They were great terrorists,” he said to Time. “But they were lousy line infantry … You fight Hizballah for a couple of years, and you either die or you get a lot better. And these guys got a lot better,” he said.
Jessica Lewis of the institute for the Study of War in Washington told Time something similar. “This is not a terrorism problem anymore … This is an army on the move in Iraq and Syria, and they are taking terrain,” she said, noting that “they have an aspirational goal to govern.” For those who felt President Barack Obama’s withdrawal from the region was too hasty, this is convenient evidence to their points. “In Iraq … each of the factions are going to their sectarian corners and are preparing to come out fighting,” wrote former CIA director General Michael V. Hayden in a CNN op-ed back in 2012. He felt that in part for symbolic reasons, and in part for reasons of stability, removal from Iraq would lead signal an invitation for renewed extremist violence.
For some, al-Maliki is the problem. Elected to Prime Minister as part of the Dawa party, al-Maliki has been criticized for a lack of diplomacy with the Sunnis in Iraq, which some claim has contributed to the atmosphere in the nation at present. Some claim that had Maliki made greater efforts to be inclusive of Sunnis the situation may not have played out as strongly as it is now. “We agree that all Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Maliki, can do more to address unresolved issues there, to better meet the needs of the Iraqi people,” said State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, according to The Washington Post.
ISIS doesn’t hold loyalty from the whole Sunni population, and reports say that while invading forces are seeing success, governance from the organization is not. “The Sunni population does not want to be dominated by (ISIS); they went through that in 2004. But by the same token, they are disillusioned with the Iraqi government in Baghdad,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey to CNN, who sites anti-Sunni political activity from the present government as reason for their loyalty falling to ISIS.
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