- - Thursday, August 13, 2015

In last week’s Republican debates Donald Trump advised us to buy stock in Iran: “You’ll quadruple,” he assured us. That may have sounded like sarcasm, but while Iran is steadily expanding its influence in key portions of Iraq, the Obama administration can’t even bring itself to directly equip Iraq’s most trustworthy fighters in the war against ISIS, the Kurdish regional guards, the Peshmerga.

The administration is beholden to its concept of a unified Iraq, so the Pentagon sends its aid to Baghdad, rather than to the Kurdish capital, Irbil, where it would otherwise pass directly into the hands of the Kurdish fighters. None of the Republican hopefuls questioned the underlying concept, but a unified Iraq must first be a physically contiguous Iraq.

That should not be taken for granted. When ISIS penetrated deep into Iraq a year ago it nearly split the country in two. The advance stretched from the Syrian border, followed the 600-mile-long Sunni Arab territory between the Kurdish North and the Shia South, and closed to within 60 miles of the Iranian border. Only the dusty, Kurdish-controlled town of Jalawla remained in the way, and its defenders, the Peshmerga, asked for U.S. help. They are still waiting.

In fairness, the United States focused its air strikes and other aid on an ISIS threat to Irbil, which was clearly important, but the Kurdish defenders of Jalawla received nothing — from the Americans. The Iranians, however, were only too happy to help. They sent Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, the special forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, to Jalawla. He brought with him Shia militias, otherwise known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), and cadred them with Quds-force members.

Jalawla remains in Kurdish hands today, and we can be thankful for that, but the PMU maintain a strong presence nearby. They’ve consolidated in the town of Sadiya where their continued presence provides a brawny reminder of increased Iranian influence in the region. To the Peshmerga it’s a reminder that Iran can either help or hurt.

Still, Gen. Soleimani and his bosses in Tehran have little reason to care which it is. They well know Iran commands overwhelming influence in the Shia-populated, oil rich, southern 60 percent of Iraq, and American inattention is effectively ceding key portions of the Kurdish north to their influence, too. Kurdish website, BasNews, has even reported on August 5 of an Iraqi Army offer to deploy a PMU brigade into Kirkuk to displace Peshmerga units holding key terrain. Kurdish officials say they will not let it happen.

“We would never allow that,” said a senior Kurdish source inside the Kurdistan Regional Government. “President Barzani himself has repeatedly traveled to Kirkuk to reinforce this point.”

Nor should the United States allow it, but the Pentagon’s inaction in the face of Kurdish military needs only encourages the Iranians to keep trying. They know any military force needing help in the middle of a fight, cannot readily look a gift horse in the mouth.

Iran’s offers can be difficult to refuse for another reason. It’s now the dominant power in the Gulf region. Its influence reaches across a Shia crescent that extends through Iraq and Syria to Yemen and portions of Saudi Arabia. The corresponding fear of Shia dominance is a key motivator for much of the Sunni Arab support for ISIS. A balance of power, of course, would be preferable, but regaining such a balance means checking Iranian power, not accommodating it.

Yet, accommodate it Washington does. The Pentagon refuses to directly aid the Peshmerga but raises little if any objection to Iranian Quds Forces fighting with and supporting the PMU.

Consider Baghdad’s operation to retake Tikrit in March and early April of this year. Iran was expected to expand its influence through participation in this battle, and that happened, but the co-mingling of Iraqi Army units with PMU cadred by Quds Force members was so widespread that it prevented U.S. air strikes until the last week of the month-long operation. For most of the fight, the United States was not just minimally in support, it could not support, because 20,000 Shia militiamen, Iranian Quds force cadres and Gen. Soleimani himself were present on the battlefield. With Shia militias providing 80 percent of the combat power on the ground, this was not Baghdad’s operation. It was Tehran’s.

Ernie Audino, brigadier general, U.S. Army (Ret), spent a year as a combat adviser embedded in a peshmerga brigade in Iraq.

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