US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has made a number of important — sometimes controversial — statements this week as he visited the Gulf region in addition to Baghdad. Before arriving at the Iraqi capital Gen. Dempsey warned against the breakout of sectarian confrontations once the Iranian-backed operation to dislodge the Islamic State from the city of Tikrit is over.
“The important thing about this operation is less about how the military aspect of it goes and more about what follows,” he said. The general was confident that the current military operation, which started earlier in the week, will be successful.
He, along with other US officials, is worried about the increasing Iranian role in Iraq. News reports said that the Iraqi operation, which includes the Iraqi army, Shiite militias and local Sunni fighters, is being managed on the ground by top Iranian Gen. Qassem Suliemani. Earlier in Washington, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he is “very concerned” about reports that Iran and Shiite militias are taking over the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and potentially fueling sectarian strife in that nation. He said that the US and the international coalition were not consulted on the campaign to liberate Tikrit, which is a prelude to wresting Mosul from IS militants later on this year. Dempsey said that “…if what follows the Tikrit operation is not that, if there’s no reconstruction that follows it, if there’s no inclusivity that follows it, if there’s the movement of populations out of their homeland that follows it, then I think we’ve got a challenge in the campaign.”
In Baghdad Gen. Dempsey criticized the level of preparedness of the Iraqi army and said that some units in line for US-led training to fight the IS are showing up ill-prepared. Concerns about the role of the Iranians in Iraq and fears of the breakout of sectarian infighting in liberated Sunni areas triggered by Shiite militias are shared by heads of Sunni tribes in Iraq. There have been reports that members of the Shiite militias had carried out summary executions of Sunnis especially in Al- Anbar province, prompting Sunni deputies in Parliament to boycott sessions.
Prime Minster Haidar Al-Abadi has defended the Shiite forces and refused to call them militias, but promised to punish anyone accused of carrying out atrocities against the Sunnis. The militias were formed in the aftermath of the fall of Mosul last year and the rising threat of the IS against Baghdad and Shiite provinces. Even leading Shiite cleric, Muqtada Al-Sadr, has criticized those “insolent” militias that have committed crimes, especially after the killing of a prominent Sunni tribal chief last month.
The increasing influence of Iran in Iraqi affairs has underlined Washington’s lack of a clear strategy over Tehran’s expansion. The US bears direct responsibility for that as that role began to appear in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion in 2003. A series of blunders, such as the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the passing of a constitution that paved the way for sectarian conflicts, have enabled Tehran to carry weight on the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Under the notorious rule of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who enjoyed the backing of Washington, ties between Tehran and Baghdad grew closer. But even worse Al-Maliki had carried out a bold campaign against his Sunni rivals and the inhabitants of Sunni provinces, especially in Al- Anbar.
The rise of the IS at the expense of Al-Qaeda in Iraq was a game changer. Excluded from the political process under Al-Maliki, many tribesmen in impoverished Sunni provinces supported the new militant group. Weakened by corruption and nepotism both the government and the new Iraq army could not prevent the IS from expanding; eventually taking over one third of Iraqi territory.
Washington’s current strategy seems to be focused on defeating the IS rather than confronting the Iranians. But Gen. Dempsey is right to question the final outcome of the campaign to offset the IS. Iranian-backed Shiite militias have prevented local Sunni residents from returning to their towns and villages in many areas. And once the militants have been driven back the possibility of sectarian battles breaking out between the militias and armed Sunnis is high.
In an editorial published this week The New York Times commented that President Obama “is becoming increasingly dependent on Iranian fighters as he tries to contain the IS militant group in Iraq and Syria without committing American ground troops.” While denying the existence of direct coordination between the US and Iran, the paper says that “Iran’s involvement is helping the Iraqis hold the line against IS advances until American military advisers are finished training Iraq’s underperforming armed forces.”
According to Dempsey the training of the Iraqi army will take time, which means that Iraq’s reliance on Iran will increase in the meantime. The US can do little to loosen Tehran’s grip over Iraq. Once the IS is defeated the reality will be that Iran will become the main player in Iraq. And if a deal is struck between the international community and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, then Tehran will emerge as a major regional player; something that irks Washington’s Arab allies. This has been underlined few days ago when Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said in a strongly worded statement during a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry that “Iran is taking over Iraq.” For now it looks like the real winner in the current war on IS will be Iran, as some Iranian officials have bragged about the emergence of a new Persian empire. This will fuel sectarian conflicts in the region and could drive frustrated Sunnis to join militant groups that would take the mantle from the defeated IS.
OSAMA AL SHARIF