Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Victory in Ramadi Bad News for ISIS and U.S. Now Genie of Popular Mobilization Forces Can't be Corked

Sitting in the airport yesterday waiting to catch a flight home, I watched a CNN interview with retired Delta Force Commander James Reese. He seemed to relish the fact that Iraqi prime minister Abadi was calling the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Shiite militias, back to Anbar Province to attempt to reclaim Ramadi. Strange since it was pressure from the U.S. that prevented the Popular Mobilization Forces from deploying in Anbar following their defeat of Islamic State in Tikrit. Abadi pulled back the Shiite militias in favor of the U.S. policy of trying to recreate the Sons of Iraq, the Sunni Awakening in Anbar. All this went unmentioned in the interview with the Delta Force analyst.

Not so in the stories filed by the Gray Lady's Tim Arango. In yesterday's "Key Iraqi City Falls to ISIS as Last of Security Forces Flee" and today's "Fall of Ramadi to ISIS Weakens Rule of Iraqi Premier," Arango clearly outlines the U.S. role in Abadi's decision both to rein in the Popular Mobilization Forces and now to unleash them. From yesterday's report Arango notes:
With defeat looming in Ramadi on Sunday afternoon, the Anbar Provincial Council met in Baghdad and voted to ask Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to send Shiite fighters to rescue Anbar, a largely Sunni province. In response, Mr. Abadi issued a statement calling for the militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces and including several powerful Shiite forces supported by Iran, to be ready to fight. Some of the Shiite irregular units, which were formed last summer after Shiite clerics put out a call to arms, are more firmly under the command of the government, while others answer to Iran.
The involvement of the militias in Anbar had been opposed by the United States, which leads an international coalition that has been carrying out airstrikes in support of Iraqi forces. American officials had worried that the militias could inflame sectarian tensions in the province and ultimately make it harder to pacify.
As they considered asking for the militias’ assistance, Anbar officials met over the weekend with the American ambassador to Iraq, Stuart E. Jones, to ascertain the United States’ position on the issue. According to officials, Mr. Jones told the Anbar delegation that the United States would continue its air campaign, provided that the militias were under the command of Mr. Abadi, and not Iranian advisers, and that the militias were properly organized to avoid American bombing runs.
The U.S. position in Iraq is thoroughly schizophrenic. The enemy is the super-sectarian ISIS. Yet the main reason for keeping the Shiite militias on a leash, choosing instead to let the woeful Iraqi Army lead the fight in Anbar, is to prevent sectarianism. In the meantime, Islamic State gains ground, captures new weapons recently supplied by both the U.S. and Russia, and spreads its ruthless sectarianism. Then the U.S. green-lights the Popular Mobilization Forces, cheering on the Shiite militias to take back what U.S. policy lost. It is as if the true American goal is make sure that no clear victory is achieved but that war rages on.

The limit to this U.S. schizophrenia or ruse is that it relies on Abadi to implement it -- to tether the militias at the same time maintaining the fiction that the Awakening can be reanimated. But, as Arango makes clear in his story today, Abadi is losing credibility rapidly. Iraqis overwhelmingly support the Popular Mobilization Forces, and Abadi's efforts to sideline them is increasingly perceived as an abject capitulation to foreign-backed designs to partition the country:
Some of the newer units, formed last year after Shiite clerics called on young men to take up arms and fight the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, do answer to the prime minister. Some of the most powerful groups, though, such as the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, may answer to Mr. Abadi in individual cases — they did not advance on Anbar until the prime minister gave orders, for example. But those militias were trained and supported directly by Iran, and the militias’ leaders have grown immensely in popularity with the Iraqi public as they have won significant battles against the Islamic State.
This has presented serious challenges to Mr. Abadi’s authority. For instance, in March, at the beginning of an operation to retake the city of Tikrit, north of Baghdad, the plans were drawn up by militia leaders, and then Mr. Abadi was told it would happen. Once those fighters failed to retake Tikrit decisively, Mr. Abadi asked them to withdraw and called for help from American airstrikes, reasserting his authority for the moment.
Now that the militias have been called upon to fight in Anbar, Mr. Abadi’s authority seems to be waning again, and the militias’ cachet has only grown. One of the most popular pictures circulating on social media in Iraq on Monday showed Hadi al-Ameri, the powerful head of the Badr militia, examining a map and seemingly plotting out a new campaign in Anbar.
Fanar Haddad, an Iraqi analyst, recently wrote in an online column that the militias have “provided a potent rallying point for a reinvigorated sense of Iraqi nationalism, albeit one with distinctly Shiite overtones.” 
In an interview, Mr. Haddad said Mr. Abadi was limited in his ability to constrain the Popular Mobilization Forces — or Hashid in Arabic, as the militias are known here. “If you want to be part of Iraq’s evolving political game, you can’t go against the Hashid,” he said. “It’s just too popular.” 
The militias’ growing popularity has coincided with an even more powerful approval of Iran’s role in Iraq, at least among Shiite Iraqis. 
Once, even many Iraqi Shiites looked at Iran with some suspicion, partly because of the legacy of the long and bloody war that Iraq fought with Iran in the 1980s. A frequent gripe of the past was about low-quality Iranian goods, such as cheese and yogurt, clogging the shelves of grocery stories. 
Now, though, in the words of Ali Kareem Salman, a 31-year-old government worker in the south, “Shiites think that Iran is the protector of the Shiite sect.”
Hanan Fatlawi, a Shiite lawmaker who is one of Mr. Abadi’s most vocal critics, said: “Previously, you could divide the Shia into two sides: those who hate Iran and those who love them. But after the entrance of ISIS, and with the situation we are in, many people are grateful to Iran. Their opinion changed." 
Of the militias, she said, “Without them, there would be no Baghdad.” 
There is an essential paradox to Mr. Abadi’s leadership thus far. In nearly every way he has proved to be the inclusive leader mandated by the United States, reaching out to Sunnis and Kurds and seeking consensus. But within Iraq, he is increasingly viewed as weak and unable to effectively shift Iraq’s tragic trajectory. 
“This term ‘inclusive personality,’ I only hear from foreigners,” Ms. Fatlawi said. “He was weak from the start.”
All of which powerfully underlines the deep flaw in the U.S. strategy. The U.S. got the man it wanted to replace Maliki. But if Abadi keeps toeing the U.S. line, his days are numbered. Iraqis know that without the militias there would be no Baghdad. And if Abadi goes, Washington will be confronted with having to abandon the battlefield with Islamic State, leaving it to Iran to help defend Iraq, or having to suck it up and attempt to bribe or cajole Abadi's replacement. Either option argues for a greater role for the Popular Mobilization Forces, which means more losses for ISIS and more victories for a renascent, popular Shiite-based Iraqi nationalism -- something that the U.S. and its allies in Israel and the Gulf monarchies cannot countenance.

So the U.S. will stick with Abadi and make sure he grants the concessions necessary to remain in power; and from this perch atop the Iraqi state, the U.S. will try to dampen the flowering of Iraqi nationalism. But the one thing that the U.S. has done reliably since it toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 -- not intentionally but as a result of the blowback from its bellicosity -- is to amplify Shiite credibility and power in the region. This is not something that is going to change.

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