- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2014

The Obama administration’s decision to provide drones and accelerate shipments of U.S. missiles to Iraq to help in the fight against resurgent al Qaeda-linked extremists added a fresh layer of complexity Monday to an already difficult relationship between Washington and the Shiite-dominated government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The White House for months has been trying to figure out how to help the Iraqi military battle a rising regional threat posed by al Qaeda in Iraq without inadvertently triggering another Sunni-Shiite civil war across the Middle East, or bolstering Mr. al-Maliki’s ascension as the region’s newest dictatorial strongman — aligned with the similarly Shiite-controlled government in neighboring Iran.

Regional analysts say a wave of intensified attacks by AQI, members of whom briefly seized control of areas of two Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq over the weekend, finally pushed the administration to deepen America’s role in Iraq, where security has been on a downward spiral since President Obama went forward in 2011 with the full withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from the nation.

The decision to beef up and accelerate the U.S. military aid may be read as a White House move to hush critics who say the administration has avoided confronting the regional resurgence of AQI after the American troop pullout. But analysts say it can be viewed more aptly as a calculated decision by the Obama administration that the benefits are likely to outweigh the risks of putting more U.S. hardware into the al-Maliki government’s hands.

“I think there is a practical reason for this decision, which is the rise of AQI and the struggle that Iraq’s security forces are having with it, so you have to provide this assistance,” said Ahmed Ali, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington.

“I don’t know if the administration is thinking about this in any other way,” said Mr. Ali. “Just over the last week, the violence in Iraq has risen to a level where the government has lost control of cities in the western part of the country. … The violence has included the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq, which has a branch in Syria as well.”

Several Republican lawmakers, with Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina among the most vocal, have spent the past two years arguing that the Obama administration moved too hastily in pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq and has not been doing enough to help the U.S.-trained Iraqi military maintain security in the nation.

The U.S. has inserted some 200 troops into Iraq since 2012 as part of the Office of Security and Cooperation-Iraq, a body set up to spearhead military aid to Baghdad in terms of manpower and weapons. But the troops are restricted from directly helping the Iraqi military repel the surge of al Qaeda fighters.

As part of a $14 billion program of military hardware sales to Iraq that began in 2005, Washington also has provided Baghdad with 75 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, according to a report Monday in The Guardian newspaper of London, which cited Pentagon spokesman Steve Warren as saying the U.S. military already does “share a lot of information” with Iraqi counterparts.

But a fresh wave of bombings that killed 20 people in Baghdad on Sunday, and reports over the weekend that AQI fighters had taken control of key areas in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi — two areas of Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar province that were among the most restive during the nearly decadelong U.S. military occupation of Iraq — set speculation swirling in Washington that the Obama administration might be considering a fresh deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, however, quelled such notions Sunday by telling reporters traveling with him on a Middle East peace mission in Jerusalem that the administration has no such plans. Hours later, the White House made public its plan to provide Baghdad with 48 Raven surveillance drones and 10 ScanEagle surveillance drones — and to accelerate a shipment of shoulder-to-air Hellfire missiles during the months ahead.

In making the announcement, White House press secretary Jay Carney took care to clarify that the decision of what to do with the hardware ultimately would be up to the Iraqi government, although U.S. forces may seek to provide guidance. “This is something for the Iraqis to take the lead on and handle themselves,” said Mr. Carney. “But that doesn’t mean that we cannot assist them, and we have.”

“We’re working closely with the Iraqis to develop a holistic strategy to isolate the al Qaeda-affiliated groups,” he said. “This situation remains fluid and it’s too early to tell or make conclusions about it, but we’re accelerating our Foreign Military Sales deliveries.”

But questions about the risks associated with backing the al-Maliki government in Baghdad lingered Monday. Just as the White House was making its announcement, a top foreign policy think tank in Washington offered an alarming review of the devolving situation in Iraq and lambasted the Shiite Muslim prime minister for exploiting sectarian divisions in “his relentless search for power” in the Middle East nation.

The report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the U.S. should be cautious about rushing to partner with Mr. al-Maliki, even if it means taking a less-aggressive posture toward the activities of al Qaeda-linked terrorists in Iraq.

“It’s hard to think of measures that could do more damage than backing al-Maliki without regard to his relentless search for power, repression and misuse of the Iraqi security forces, and exploitation of Iraq’s sectarian divisions between Shiite and Sunni,” said the report, authored by Middle East-focused analysts Anthony Cordesman and Sam Khazai.

At issue are accusations over the past three years that Mr. al-Maliki has emerged as a Shiite strongman, using authoritarian tactics to muzzle opposition and exclude the country’s Sunni Muslim minority from power.

Although there are concerns that Mr. al-Maliki has allowed Iranian political and economic influence to blossom in Baghdad, international rights groups have focused mainly on suspected human rights abuses that have occurred under the Iraqi prime minister’s rule. A report by Human Rights Watch last year said that Mr. al-Maliki’s security forces were suppressing freedom of expression and assembly, had beaten and detained anti-government demonstrators, and operated a secret prison where suspects were tortured.

Mr. Ali said Monday that there are concerns the Obama administration may be willing to allow the al-Maliki government “complete freedom” in the use of the military hardware.

“The concern is that these weapons will not be used to target AQI operatives,” Mr. Ali said. “Even if they were used for that, AQI members have barricaded themselves in neighborhoods. So if you used the weapons on those areas, civilians will be killed and the civilians will perceive that the U.S. is taking sides, picking the Shiite side” in Iraq.

“The administration has to be very clear that if the Iraqi government carries out operations in primarily Iraqi Sunni areas, in Anbar province for instance, you have to work with the Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders,” he said. “I think the administration should at least strongly encourage the Iraqi government to do that.”

Mr. al-Maliki appears unlikely to embrace such an initiative. He made headlines Monday by calling on the residents of Fallujah to either purge the al Qaeda-linked militants who had seized part of the city over the weekend or be prepared for an imminent attack by Iraqi security forces.

A turning point of the U.S. war in Iraq came during the late-2000s when Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province took an unexpected stand against al Qaeda-linked forces in the province. The Obama administration evidently reminded Mr. al-Maliki of that fact during a telephone call that Vice President Joseph R. Biden made Monday to the Iraqi prime minister.

The message apparently got through. During the call, Mr. al-Maliki “affirmed the importance of working closely with Iraq’s Sunni leaders and communities to isolate extremists,” according to a statement circulated Monday by Mr. Biden’s office.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies report, meanwhile, said the situation was complicated for Washington because counterterrorism aid to Baghdad is a key element of U.S. efforts to counter Iranian attempts to meddle in Iraq.

“U.S. support of Iraq’s security efforts is one of the few areas where the United States retains major leverage in dealing with Iraq and countering Iranian influence,” states an executive summary of the report.

But the summary also stressed that the volatility in parts of Iraq is “largely a self-inflicted wound and one self-inflicted by its present government,” and that “No outside power can change the situation.”

“The resurgence of al Qaeda and other extremist movements, and the growing depth of its sectarian and ethnic divisions is the fault of its political leaders, not outside states or a lack of Iraqi nationalism and inherent forces within Iraqi society,” the report said. “Like so much of the Arab world, Iraq cannot succeed through denial of its real world challenges or export the blame even when that blame is valid.

“It also cannot be ‘fixed’ by U.S. aid to its military or counterterrorism forces that does not address Iraq’s political failures and mistakes. Iraq’s progress depends on the willingness of its political leaders to turn away from a narrow focus on their own position sect, ethnicity, and faction,” the report said.

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