The war against ISIS in Iraq just took a dark turn

A car is engulfed by flames during clashes in the city of Ramadi, May 16, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

The Islamic State terror group just claimed a big victory in Iraq with the seizing of the provincial capital of Iraq’s largest region.

And Baghdad’s actions before and after the setback are raising red flags about the strategy to fight ISIS.

Reuters described the loss of Ramadi, which lies about 130km from Baghdad, as the “biggest defeat for the Baghdad government since last summer,” when the Islamic State [also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh] seized Mosul and declared its “caliphate.”

Significantly, the loss might have been preventable had Baghdad been willing to empower the area’s Sunnis.

ISIS formed in the wake of the US occupation of Iraq, which toppled dictator Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime and placed Shiites in powerful positions in the country’s new government.

Then in December 2010, the US went along with the plan backed by Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force. The plan called for no US troops beyond 2011 and relied on the continued support of the authoritarian Iran-backed regime of Nouri al-Maliki, then Iraq’s prime minister.

Ali Khedery, the longest continuously serving US official during the Iraq war (2003 to 2009), has said America’s continued support of Maliki made it so that “Iraq’s path toward civil war was really inevitable.”

Sunni shia iraq

Michael Pregent, a former US intelligence officer, and Daily Beast reporter Jacob Siegel highlight that Iraq’s government is still dominated by Shiites, who “fear empowering Iraq’s Sunnis more than they fear allowing ISIS to continue attacking and bleeding the country’s Sunni regions.”

Rather than empower Sunnis, Baghdad has relied on Shia militias backed by Iran to drive ISIS out of Iraq since Iraq’s own army isn’t yet capable of beating back the terror group on its own.

And the government is reluctant to divert weapons from the Shia militias to Sunnis out of fear that these Sunnis might one day rise up against the Shiites in Baghdad.

Furthermore, Baghdad’s reliance on Iranian help to fight ISIS is creating a vicious circle that could end up benefiting the terror group.

“More than anything, defeating ISIS requires a capable ground force,” Pregent and Siegel write. “Baghdad has refused so far to entrust Iraq’s Sunnis with their own defence, preferring to arm the Shia militias and choose where they fight.

“In turn, Sunni areas like Anbar are vulnerable to attacks like the one on Ramadi, which further threatens Baghdad. With Baghdad under threat, the government is even less willing to siphon resources from the militias, which comprise the capital’s Shia defence force and arm the Sunnis. And from that logic ISIS prospers.”

ISIS Ramadi zones of control map

As Pregent told Business Insider last month, Iran likely doesn’t seem to want to defeat ISIS entirely.

He argued that Iran does want to keep control of Baghdad and Damascus, but it also has something to gain in allowing ISIS to continue operating in some other areas.

As long as ISIS remains a threat, Iran can claim that its allies in Syria and Iraq (Shia militias and the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad) are the only thing preventing a jihadist takeover, thereby preserving Iran’s influence in those two countries.

ISIS map

Unfortunately, Iraq is incapable of fighting ISIS on its own. Naseer Nori, head of the Iraqi defence ministry’s media office, told The Wall Street Journal: “On a strategic level, there have been victories against Daesh. Does this mean Daesh is no longer effective? No. We must be honest.”

As McClatchy DC noted, ISIS militants in Iraq snatched up US equipment as Iraqi army troops abandoned their positions.

WSJ pointed out that ISIS taking Ramadi “has exposed the fragility of Iraqi forces, despite US efforts to train them.”

Iraq Ramadi ISIS Islamic State
Security forces defend their headquarters against attacks by Islamic State extremists during sand storm in the eastern part of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, May 14, 2015. AP

Nori said he wants more American involvement in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. But President Barack Obama has already taken a lot of criticism for using air strikes to support the Iran-backed Shia militias, and he seems reluctant to commit any American ground troops to the fight. Iran, meanwhile, is more than happy to extend their influence.

Ramadi is a Sunni city that’s strategically important given its proximity to Baghdad. And now Iran-backed Shia militias are headed into Ramadi to try to take back the city.

This clash is a dark turn, and a recipe for sectarian tensions to intensify.

Michael B. Kelley contributed to this report.

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