US President Barack Obama wanted to leave Iraq far, far behind.
Instead, the United States may be the country’s last chance to stay in one piece.
After initial reluctance to get involved in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), the White House jumped into the fight last summer after the group beheaded two Americans and threatened the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Since then, the United States has gradually increased its military and financial commitment to Baghdad while insisting that the Iraqis themselves must do the fighting.
In September, the United States began to pull together an international coalition to combat the Islamist group that has taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Obama ramped up the effort in November when he asked Congress for $5.6 billion to defeat the terrorist group — including $1.6 billion for a train-and-equip mission in Iraq.
Congress quickly signed off on the White House request, and US aid has been steadily increasing since then. In June, Obama announced that he would be sending another 450 advisers to Iraq — bringing the total to about 3,500 since last year.
During a meeting at the White House in April, Obama embraced Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as a “a strong partner” who could succeed in bringing his fractured country back together. The endorsement is in sharp contrast to relations with Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, whom Congress and the White House had all but dismissed as a hopelessly divisive Shiite sectarian.
The turnaround follows an intense lobbying campaign by the Podesta Group and Baghdad’s energetic ambassador to Washington, Lukman Faily.
To ensure that the United States didn’t cut and run, Iraq in 2013 inked its first US lobbying contract since the fall of Saddam Hussein a decade earlier with Democratic super-lobbyist Tony Podesta. The country chose a firm known for its close ties with Vice President Joe Biden, who was given the Iraq file early in Obama’s presidency.
Leading the $1 million-a-year lobbying effort is former Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Rademaker.
Days after the contract was signed, Podesta set up a meeting with former Biden speechwriter and Middle East adviser Jon Finer. Lobbying has focused mainly on Congress since then, however.
Weapons have started to flow into Baghdad to replace those captured or destroyed by IS during its lightning strike last summer.
In December, the Pentagon notified Congress of a potential $3 billion sale of 1,000 up-armored Humvees and 175 M1 Abrams tanks. And in July, a first batch of four F-16s that had been held up for years finally arrived at the Balad air base near Baghdad.
In addition, the State Department has requested $355 million in bilateral assistance for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 — $46 million more than last year. Reserved for military training and equipment is $250 million, or 70%.
A number of Republican hawks say it’s not enough and that the United States needs to send more troops — a figure of 10,000 is usually bandied about — and get them closer to the action. Baghdad, however, maintains that it can act on its own with proper aerial support from the United States.
Iraq is also counting on the United States to contain another threat to its territorial integrity: the Kurds.
While the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its peshmerga fighters have been key allies in the fight against IS, Baghdad is adamant that the relatively prosperous, resource-rich northern province remain a part of Iraq. The Obama administration’s official policy is to send all arms through Baghdad, although it has gotten around that by using the CIA to get weapons in Kurdish hands when IS threatened to run them over.
Baghdad’s lobbying push, coupled with an assist from Defense Secretary Ash Carter, helped kill an amendment to the Senate defense bill in June that would have authorized the Pentagon to provide “defense articles, defense services, and related training directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government.”
“The Senate amendment, in its current form, would pit elements of our society against one another and would create a dangerous precedent that would undermine Iraq unity and sovereignty at this critical time,” Faily told Politico at the time.
The Senate ended up defeating the amendment from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, 45-54. A similar House bill from Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., has gone nowhere.
A similar outcry from Baghdad forced the House Armed Services Committee to revise an early version of its defense bill that stated the KRG should be “deemed to be a country.” The final version that cleared the House retains a provision that at least 12.5% of the $715 million it sets aside for the fight against IS — or $89 million — be reserved for the peshmerga.
Iraq has also been encroached upon by Turkey — with the Obama administration’s tacit consent.
After Ankara in late July bombed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) rebels in their strongholds in northern Iraq, Abadi denounced a “dangerous escalation and a violation of Iraq's sovereignty.” The State Department declined to blame Turkey, which had just accepted to allow US airstrikes against IS from its air bases.
“Turkey has continued to come under attack by PKK terrorists, and we recognize their right to defend themselves against those attacks,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.
“I recognize that in some cases, the PKK has fought against [IS], but they are a foreign terrorist organization,” Kirby added. “And our fight against [IS] is not in cooperation with, coordination with or communication with the PKK.”
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