Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis

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U.S. Should Link Political Settlement in Iraq to any Military Strike to Avoid Sectarian War

The situation in Iraq is much more complex and dangerous than what appears on the surface. It is more than just a radical Islamic group making a surprise large assault and occupying a big chunk of the country. It is more about a sectarian war raging in the country as well as the region for the past few years; and it is about an Iraqi government that has sidelined the Muslim Sunni minority in the country for the past six years; and it is about an escalating cold war between the predominantly Shiite-Persian Iran and the predominantly Sunni-Arab States, especially in the Gulf region. As the United States weighs in on a possible action against the fighters of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that are approaching the capital Baghdad it would be wise to examine the facts before taking any action that could lead Washington into an ethno-sectarian quagmire that would undermine the interests of America and its allies in the Middle East region.

The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has been locked in a conflict with the major Sunni tribal leaders of the country for a few years now. Many of the predominantly Sunni provinces in the central and northern parts of the country were holding strikes and sit-ins in protest of the Maliki government policies for about a couple of years. Maliki sent in government security services and the military several times to put down a public uprising by the Sunni tribes and groups. However, confrontations with the security forces and troops led to the rise of armed groups known as Tribal Rebels who fought several battles with government forces. These clashes soon took on a sectarian dimension with predominantly Shiite government forces clashing with Sunni tribesmen. Arab Gulf countries openly supported the rights of the Sunni tribes against the Iranian-backed Maliki government. Maliki has accused Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in arming the tribes and funding the uprising.

In the midst of the tribal uprising, ISIS – a splinter of Al-Qaeda that fell out with the leaders of the mother group and has since been operating separately under Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi – reappeared on the Iraqi scene with more strength and better organization. The ISIS was originally known as the Islamic State in Iraq, but renamed itself two years ago after it moved into Syria to fight on the side of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels against the Iranian-backed Syrian regime forces. The conflict in Syria allowed ISIS to grow in man-power and in military strength, and later it turned against the FSA and now has full control of Al-Raqah province and most of Deir Al-Zour province on the borders with Iraq. ISIS took advantage of the discontent within the Iraqi Sunni population in the north to revive its operations there in a friendly environment. Soon after ISIS joined forces with other Iraqi Sunni groups – Islamists and Tribesmen – in fighting the Maliki forces.

It should be mentioned that when the United States occupied Iraq, American forces found in Iraqi Sunni tribes the best ally against Al-Qaeda. U.S. General David Patraeus struck an alliance with the Iraqi Sunni tribes and helped fund, train and arm tribal groups known as “Al Sahawat” that spearheaded the fight against Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State in Iraq and almost uprooted them from the country. When U.S. forces pulled out of the country five years ago Maliki was supposed to preserve Al-Sahawat and absorb its members within the Iraqi security and armed forces. However, Maliki who was bent on weakening the Sunnis and not allowing them any strong role politically and militarily, disbanded Al-Sahawat and neglected its members who became an easy prey to vengeful attacks by Al-Qaeda. Maliki failed to see that the best means to fight Sunni radicals was to use Sunni tribesmen who defended their towns, cities and way of life from the radical fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq.

The Syrian revolution and its deterioration into a sectarian civil war only worsened the situation in Iraq. Iran and its allied Shiite militias in Iraq and in Lebanon (Hizbullah) sent in men and arms to help defend the Syrian regime that is predominantly Alawite – an offshoot of Shiites. Arab Gulf States have supplied the rebels with arms and funding. Al-Qaeda and ISIS saw a big opportunity in the civil war to establish themselves on the Syrian scene especially after the world’s super powers failed to reach an agreement at the United Nations on how to end the Syrian conflict. Washington and the West decided to refrain from any military intervention as they had done in Libya despite the fact the Syrian regime used chemical weapons and is receiving considerable military assistance from Russia, Iran and Hizbullah.

Now ISIS backed by armed Sunni tribesmen has launched its big on slaught into northern and central Iraq. Maliki has called on the U.S. to intervene militarily and Washington seems to be considering this request. At the same time, Tehran has announced its readiness to intervene, while many press reports in the West and the region are reporting that Iranian Revolutionary Guards are already on the ground in Iraq helping the government forces. Maliki has called for Iraqis to volunteer to military service to help defend their cities and thousands of Iraqi Shiites from the south have joined in for the fight against the onslaught by Sunni groups. It is worth noting that the powerful and influential media outlets in the Arab Gulf States are referring to the conflict in Iraq as a confrontation between “Maliki forces” and the “tribes,” with some role to ISIS. It is being depicted as a war between oppressed Sunnis against Iranian-backed Shiite government forces under Maliki.

The debate is now heating up in Washington as how and whether the U.S. should intervene. U.S. naval ships and a carrier have already been dispatched to Gulf waters, and Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his readiness to meet with Iranian officials to discuss the situation in Iraq. So what is the U.S. objectives and policy about stepping into an ethno-sectarian conflict in the Middle East? On whose side should it be: The Sunni Arabs or the Shiite Persians? Although many U.S. officials might argue that Washington just wants to protect its interests in oil-rich Iraq and wants to pursue its war on terrorism by hitting ISIS and preventing it from establishing a state in Iraq, however, one cannot deny the fact that it is a sectarian war and in wars an intervening party would have to take sides or stay out. Many Arab leaders to this day question the U.S. motives by deciding in the last minute to call off strikes against the Syrian regime. They are also suspicious of Washington’s decision not to properly arm the Syrian rebels and allowing the Syrian regime to regain strength with help from Iran and Shiite militias and not doing anything about it. Hizbullah, which is branded by U.S. as a terrorist group, occupied big chunks of Syrian territory along the borders with Lebanon and the U.S. did not do anything about it, so why now step up and intervene to stop a Sunni group branded as terrorist? These are questions that are and will be raised in the Middle East region, and even beyond. Sunni-Shiite clashes are on the rise in Asian countries where Sunnis are a majority in Pakistan. Malaysia and Indonesia.

For many Arab countries, especially in the Gulf, the United States is still in the doghouse for secretly negotiating and reaching a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. Many theories are being discussed in closed rooms in the Arab world as to what are the intentions of the U.S. Administration. Is it really helping Iran establish a Shiite Crescent extending from Iran all the way to Lebanon? Is Washington in conspiracy with Iran to weaken the Arabs? For many Americans this might sound absurd. But for Arabs - people and leaders - watch the situation unfold on the ground it would be seen differently. Hence, Washington must really measure its actions in Iraq in the next few days and weeks and make sure it does not get sucked into a sectarian war that would jeopardize its interests in the Middle East region. Any action by the U.S. Administration must come as part of a comprehensive agreement that would include Iran, Iraq and the Arab Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia. Even though most Arab leaders do not want to see Al-Qaeda or ISIS establish any foothold in the region, they also cannot support actions that would empower Iran and its allies. An American military intervention in Iraq must be part of an overall agreement with the concerned parties to end the Iraqi government oppression of the Sunnis and giving them their rights. It should also take into consideration the situation in Syria where ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Hizbullah, Iranian and Shiite militias are getting stronger and would continue to pose a threat on not just Syria’s neighbors, but the whole world.

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