After a delayed response that enabled the Islamic State (IS) to rampage through much of the country, President Barack Obama’s administration has overcome its deep reluctance to get sucked back into the Middle East vortex. More than 4,000 US troops have now been deployed ever closer to the action, while US jets, drones and now Apache attack helicopters offer vital aerial support.
The beefed-up military presence and the US role in leading an international coalition is paying off as IS is on the back-foot across the country. After a slew of recent victories in Anbar province, US advisers are now helping Iraqis plan the recapture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, possibly by the end of 2016.
“The trajectory is positive. [IS] has not had a major battlefield victory in over a year. It has lost 47% of its territory in Iraq and 20% in Syria,” Obama’s special envoy to the counter-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee June 28. “More important than percentages, however, is the strategic nature of the territory that [IS] has lost: nearly the entire border between Syria and Turkey, iconic cities like Ramadi, Tikrit and Fallujah, and all the major transit points between Raqqa and Mosul.”
Some Iraqis warn, however, that the United States must forge a deep strategic partnership in order to avoid a repeat of what happened after US troops departed in 2011. In an exit interview last month, Iraq’s ambassador to Washington for the past three years told Al-Monitor that he’s setting up a new venture to continue pressing for deeper ties.
“There's a lot of good going on now," Lukman Faily said. "But let me give you a bit of warning here: If the relationship is only about IS and not [about] substantial, mutual threats and opportunities, then as soon as [IS] as a threat goes, where are we with that relationship? Are we back to square one?"
US agencies across the Obama administration appear to have grown more receptive to the message that the United States can’t just pull out after IS is dealt with and hope for the best.
The State Department, for example, is asking for $333 million in economic support in its fiscal year 2017 budget request, including $260 million for a sovereign loan guarantee that would help Iraq borrow up to $1 billion in the international credit market. That’s almost seven times more non-military aid than the average over the past three years.
“Recent military, political and economic developments have placed a higher importance on US assistance to the government and people of Iraq,” the State Department said in its budget justification. “Ensuring the [Iraqi government’s] active and visible role in responding to stabilization and reconstruction … is crucial for sustained success against extremists.”
And in June, the US Embassy in Baghdad announced that the United States had extended a $2.7 billion line of credit for Iraq to buy military equipment. The deal gives Iraq almost a decade to pay for ammunition and maintenance for its F-16 jets and M1 Abrams tanks battling IS.
The increased cooperation follows mounting pressure from Faily and the well-connected Podesta Group, which the embassy hired in 2013 to lobby on its behalf. The firm has 10 registered lobbyists on the account and was paid almost $1 million last year.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, however. The Obama administration and Congress do not always see eye to eye with Baghdad regarding Iranian influence and relations with the Kurds, to the detriment of the bilateral relationship.
Congress in particular has been particularly receptive to Kurdish lobbying for more autonomy. Section 1222 of the pending House Defense authorization bill, for example, calls for directly arming the peshmerga, a policy that is strongly opposed by Baghdad.
And the pending House foreign aid spending bill requires that the State Department set aside at least $95 million in Counterterrorism Partnership funding for nonlethal assistance to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The bill also mandates that Erbil receive no less than 17% — its theoretical share of the Iraqi national budget — of both the proposed $260 million sovereign loan guarantee and the $2.7 billion US loan to buy military equipment.
“The administration does want unity of the country and doesn't want to challenge or undermine” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Faily said. “But, at the same time, we don't always have that view of Congress, for example, or the United States at large."
The signing last month of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Pentagon and the KRG is particularly problematic, Faily said. While Baghdad has no objection to Washington’s military cooperation with the peshmerga and its $415 million contribution to their salaries, formalizing the agreement through an MOU is another matter, even if there are reports that Abadi did not object.
"This projects that this is a state affair. It's another sign of bypassing Baghdad. At the end of the day, these are federal [government] issues," Faily told Al-Monitor. “It's an immediate fix [that] will create a long-term problem. Where does the central authority finish, and where does the authority of provinces start?"
The issue doesn’t just concern the Kurds, said Faily, who is himself Kurdish. Anbar’s Sunni tribes, for example, have also launched a lobbying effort to carve out more power for themselves, a message that resonates with US policymakers on and off Capitol Hill who are concerned about Iran’s influence on Baghdad’s majority-Shiite government.
“We need to lay the foundation for a second Sunni awakening," Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said in a Nov. 19 Council on Foreign Relations speech. "We need to put sustained pressure on the government in Baghdad to get its political house in order, move forward with national reconciliation and finally stand up a national guard. Baghdad needs to accept, even embrace, arming Sunni and Kurdish forces in the war against [IS]. But if Baghdad won’t do that, the coalition should do so directly."
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