As the offensive to drive Islamic State (ISIS) out of Mosul finally gets underway, the assumption is that Iraq's second largest city will fall to Coalition forces, as did Fallujah and Tikrit last year. There may only be 5,000 ISIS fighters in the city against a combined assault force of 30,000 with American advisers and backed by U.S. air strikes. Resistance is expected to consist of booby traps, IEDs, suicide bombers, mortars and snipers. ISIS will also use civilians as human shields to deter the use of heavy weapons (artillery and air strikes). These tactics can slow an advance and inflict casualties, but they do not constitute a true defense of territory.
There are, however, always two stages to the liberation of an area previously under enemy control. Defeating the enemy is only the first stage. The second is determining who will govern after the main fighting is over. The United States bungled this second stage after deposing the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In a rush to avoid the charge of "imperialism" (a charge always made and which should always be ignored) and in the hope of avoiding the prolonged costs of "nation building", the Bush administration prematurely returned "sovereignty" to Iraq only fifteen months after the invasion. Though there was a provisional government of national unity at the time, it was replaced in 2005 by an election dominated by sectarian parties. This vote was held long before post-Saddam national institutions could be rebuilt. The result was the disintegration of the country into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite communities contesting for control. The Kurds merely wanted their own area, but the Shiites wanted to destroy their ancient Sunni rivals in the Islamic schism.
Ironically, massive violence followed the return of sovereignty, a protest against the simplistic democracy promoted by Washington. Unadulterated majority rule means Shiite domination of Iraq, putting the rights (even the survival) of the Sunnis and Kurds in jeopardy. Iyad Allawi, though a Shiite, had created the National Accord which cut across the sects. Unfortunately, his party lost the 2005 elections and Iraq has suffered under fanatic Shiite regimes (backed by Iran) ever since. The U.S. had the power to maintain a national unity government and to block the coming into office of a sectarian Shiite regime, but did not do so. It was not the war that created "instability" it was the peace. Regime change made things worse because it was not completed on terms favorable to the U.S.
In 2011, I was on the staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee and accompanied a Congressional delegation to Iraq which had a stormy meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It was clear Maliki was already working for Tehran even before all U.S. troops were withdrawn. One point of contention raised by the Congressmen was a recent attack on a community of Iranian exiles by supposedly Iraqi security forces. The attack on April 8, 2011 killed 34 civilians and wounded hundreds more. There was no reason for the attack other than Iran's desire to wipe out enemies of the Tehran regime and Maliki's willingness to obey. It is thought that there were Iranian Special Forces involved in the attack, dressed in Iraqi uniforms.
It was obvious that once all U.S. troops were withdrawn, Maliki would take even more severe actions against enemies of Tehran and the Shiite faith. Within days of the last American soldier leaving, Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, who fled the country. It was then a rapid descent into civil war. Both President Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time, claim that U.S. troops could not have been kept in Iraq without a "status of forces" agreement with Maliki, as if Washington did not have the power to enforce its will. After all, the reason to keep troops in Iraq was to constrain Maliki and build up a professional military on a national basis. Obama was not prepared to do these things because he was committed to a withdrawal of forces before his first term was up regardless of the consequences--- dire consequences hat could clearly be foreseen.
Obama has had to send over 5,000 American soldiers back into Iraq in the face of a crisis even he could not ignore. But the drive on Mosul still reflects the basic problem that triggered the crisis. Sunni territory is being "liberated" by troops loyal to the Shiite regime in Baghdad. The regular Iraqi Army which American trainers had created collapsed under ISIS attack. It had been hollowed out when its officers had been replaced by political and sectarian hacks by Maliki, then stationed in Sunni lands more as an army of internal occupation than national defense. With the regular units shattered, Baghdad turned to the Popular Mobilization Units, Shiite militia organized and trained by Iran. Many of these units have fought against American forces in the past and threaten to do so again. Voice of America has quoted a PMU leader, Rayan al-Kaldani, as saying, "The PMU will be dealing with any illegitimate and foreign forces in Mosul the way it deals with the gangs of the Islamic State." a veiled threat to American advisers and Special Forces. Tehran doesn't want U.S. troops in Iraq any more than they want them in Syria, where other Iran-backed militias are fighting to keep the Assad regime in power.
The United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have all reported on "war crimes" committed by PMU forces against Sunni civilians during the liberation of Fallujah. The Baghdad government has tried to minimize these claims, but promised to keep the militias out of Tikrit. By and large, that policy was upheld, though PMU forces played a supporting role in the assault. The PMU does not want to be kept out of Mosul. PMU spokesman also said on Oct. 19 that they would participate in the taking of Tal Afar, a town about 34 miles west of Mosul, which is being used as an escape route for civilians fleeing the fighting. The coalition planned to give this mission to the Kurds to safeguard the civilians; something the PMU cannot be trusted to do. More atrocities against the Sunni will not only rally support for ISIS; it will give credence to its propaganda that the U.S. is in league with Shiite genocide. The U.S. won the "surge" against al-Qaeda in Iraq by championing a Sunni Awakening and pledging that the Sunni would get a fair shake in a democratic Iraq. The withdrawal of American troops made it impossible to keep that promise.
The U.S. has refused to provide air support to the PMU and has tried to form Sunni militia units to help liberate their own areas. However, many Sunni tribal leaders are wary of Washington, especially since most military aid has been funneled through Baghdad where even heavy weapons (artillery, armored vehicles) have been sent on to the PMU by the Shiite authorities. Waning U.S. support for anti-Assad Sunni rebels in Syria in the face of the Russian intervention also sends a message of appeasement of Iranian influence in the region.
Turkey is also concerned about the PMU. "The forces we have trained at the Bashiqa camp are Mosul's own people. The participation of these forces is important to the operation's success," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a news conference October 7. Bashiqa is in northern Iraq, an area Turkish troops have occupied to keep both Kurdish and Shiite forces from seizing land taken from ISIS. The Obama administration has not paid enough attention to Ankara's objectives in the Syrian civil war, which is to save the Sunni population and push back Iranian advances. As Obama has faltered, Ankara has tried to open talks with Russia; a traditional enemy, but the more active power. The obvious solution is a partition of both Syria and Iraq to provide a Sunni homeland, the ISIS Caliphate idea without the radical ideology. Russia might go for this as it would preserve its enclave in a rump Syria still ruled by Assad.
Back in 2007, then Senator Joe Biden proposed what many characterized as a 3-way partition of Iraq. He called it "federalism" but the effect would have been to transfer power from Baghdad to Kurdish and Sunni provincial governments. He argued that without such a settlement there would be "no chance for leaving Iraq without leaving chaos behind." But conflict and chaos were inevitable when the U.S. left without providing a guarantee of security and independence for the Kurds and Sunnis in the face of a militant Iran-Shiite threat. Mere "federalism" was not enough, especially when Washington continued to treat Baghdad as the central government through which all aid was sent. To provide a guarantee, however, would have meant keeping American forces in the region and confronting Iran---against whom any guarantee would be aimed. Obama was not interested in doing either of these things.
With abundant evidence that the nuclear agreement with Iran has not moderated the theocracy's ambitions, it is time to look realistically at the regional chess board and propose a "grand bargain" to restore a stable balance of power and a potential peace. The maps will have to be redrawn along sectarian lines, as has been done repeatedly in the Balkans. A Sunni homeland backed by Turkish military power and Saudi-Gulf money within the Arab League is the only configuration that can match an Iran with satraps in the non-Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria. Behind these blocs would stand the U.S. and Russia, with Moscow hopefully finding that peace best served its interests. To be a credible broker of such a deal, Washington will have to win back the trust of the Sunnis by making sure they do not fall back under Shiite oppression once ISIS is defeated. America's traditional allies are the Sunni states and any further betrayal of the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria will undermine America's entire regional security system.
Secure borders between internally cohesive nations have a much better track record than the liberal notion that ancient enemies with incompatible world views can live peacefully under the same roof--- a notion that has failed right before our eyes.
William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.
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