The brazen military offensive launched by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) early last week resulted in the successful seizure of large swathes of northern and north-central Iraq, including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit. Now in control of oil-rich lands spanning parts of eastern Syria and northern Iraq, ISIS is poised to continue its push towards Baghdad, however unlikely the possibility it could seize control of the city in part or entirely.
That the lightning offensive caught relevant bodies within the US Government by surprise is all the more puzzling when one considers that the battle for Iraq had been steadily intensifying over the course of the last year. In particular, the decision of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to launch a widespread military crackdown on ISIS in Anbar and forcibly dismantle the Ramadi protest camp, which the Iraqi Government claimed to be the headquarters of ISIS, but was, in truth, a peaceful sit-in protest against the policies of the Maliki government was a turning point. The move only enflamed tensions between the Sunnis and Maliki’s government. To be fair, the ISIS offensive caught the Iranians by surprise as well, but as Bruce Reidel observed, “Iran is much better poised to recover and strike back, and will probably emerge as the big winner in the Iraq debacle, solidifying its dominance in Baghdad.” Now Washington is scrambling for a response and is faced with the unsavory fact that its best option may be to cooperate, however begrudging or limited it may be, with its longtime foe Iran. Moreover, the Obama Administration is confronted by the reality that, in the end, Iran will once again emerge with the upper hand in Iraq, a bitter pill and yet another black mark on its dismal foreign policy record in the region.
Both Washington and Tehran share a common interest in confronting the threat from ISIS, stabilizing Iraq and preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity. Moreover, US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have both encouraged Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to pursue a policy of reconciliation and reach out to Sunnis and Kurds, though Maliki has ignored such pleas. However, their visions of a stable Iraq diverge dramatically, with Tehran seeking further enhance its influence in the country by ensuring a Shiʿi dominated government sympathetic to Iranian interests remains in power and by encouraging the mobilization of the general Iraqi Shiʿi populace against ISIS through its proxy militias, such as the Badr Organization, Asaʿib Ahl al-Haq, and Kataʿib Hizballah, among others. Thus, while publically encouraging Maliki to pursue a policy inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds, Iran, through its actions, is pursuing a military strategy designed to benefit its Iraqi co-religionists. In contrast, the US remains committed to bolstering the democratic institutions of the Iraqi state, particularly the Iraqi Security Forces, and encouraging the creation of an Iraqi identity not beholden to sectarian identities, Sunni or Shiʿi. The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States is planning to discuss possible cooperation with Iran to push back ISIS and stabilize Iraq as early as this week. In the meantime, Iran, due to its already advantageous political and geographic positions, has reportedly deployed IRGC battalions to Iraq and sent Quds Force commander General Qassem Suleimani to advise the Iraqi government and oversee the implementation of Iran’s strategy in Iraq. In contrast, the United States repositioned an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, deployed 275 soldiers to protect the US Embassy and Embassy personnel, and is reportedly considering sending a small detachment of Special Forces to train and advise Iraqi Security Forces, though not engage in combat. However, the Obama Administration’s commitment to not put American “boots on the ground” and repositioning of an aircraft carrier demonstrates its weak position and relative inability to have any significant effect on events in Iraq. Possible airstrikes against ISIS positions may positively contribute to changing the situation militarily, but outside of the Kurds, Washington lacks influential allies within the Iraqi political system. Iran, though, through the IRGC and its Shiʿi proxy forces has both the opportunity and the potential to change facts on the ground, tightening its hold on Iraq and promoting Shiʿisectarian interests. An example of this influence is Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr organization and current minister of transportation, who is in charge of security in the Diyala province. In this position, Amiri coordinates security operations against ISIS, making use not only of the ISF but also 500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) members recently deployed to the province and fighters from his own Iranian-backed Badr organization and other Shiʿi proxy forces, like Kataʿib Hizballah.
Moreover, Iran’s ability to mobilize Iraq’s Shiʿi populace has been made significantly easier due to existential threat many Shiʿi believe it poses to their holy sites and communities. Any attack on one of the shrines would spark a new, more vicious sectarian conflict in Iraq. On 11 June, skirmishes were reported to have taken place on the outskirts of Samarra, the predominately Sunni city 70 miles from Baghdad and the site of the Imam al-ʿAskarī Mosque, which was severely damaged by al-Qaeda bombers in 2006 and 2007. The attacks on one of the most venerated sites in the Shiʿi world ignited a sectarian war and provided a symbol around which radical Shiʿi Islamists mobilized. Preventing another attack on the shrine, as well as attacks on other revered Shiʿi holy sites, has turned into a rallying cry used to mobilize the Shiʿi faithful. A fear made all the more real due to ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani’s threats to not only to attack Baghdad but to take the battle to two of Shiʿi Islam’s holiest cities, Najaf and Karbala. In response, several influential Shiʿi clerics, notably by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Muqtada al-Sadr, and Ammar al-Hakim, have called for all Iraqis, but particularly Shiʿis, to mobilize in defense of Iraq and in “defense of the holy sites.” Sistani, elaborating on his fatwa calling for restraint and order, urged Iraqis, through his spokesman Abdu al-Mahdi al-Karbalai, to support the ISF and volunteer to defend the state because “the threats posed obligate the volunteering of those who are capable of carrying arms to defend the homeland and it is a duty on [them].” Sadr proposed the formation of “Peace Battalions” (sarāyā al-difāʿ) that will coordinate with the government to defend “holy sites,” as well as called for his supporters to organize military parades, which will likely feature displays of force by his militia, Liwāʾ al-Yaum al-Mauʿūd (Promised day Brigades). For his part, Ammar al-Hakim, in a speech at a recruitment center, urged Iraqis to volunteer to defend Iraq. Iranian-backed Asaʿib Ahl al-Haq, in an official declaration, stated “that the sons of the Islamic Resistance… declare their complete readiness to defend Iraq and its holy sites in order to defeat these takfiri groups which endeavor to sow discord and division.” To be sure, differences of opinion and division exist between the various Shiʿi movements, not all of which support the Iranian line. However, in the face of such an existential threat, they are united.
While the outcome of the fighting is far from over, the events to date have only served to exacerbate sectarian division and tension in Iraq, a fact that will have lasting consequences for Iraqi society and the Iraq that emerges after this round of fighting. No matter how this round of fighting ends, though, the shape of the future Iraq will be more in line with Iranian designs than American. A bitter fact America must accept, albeit grudgingly.