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Obama’s Effort to Combat Extremists Suffers Iraq Setback

By John Walcott, Zaid Sabah and Lisa Lerer
August 23, 2014 3:47 PM EDT 259 Comments
Members of the Iraqi security forces keep watch on Aug. 14, 2014 on the main highway near Ramadi, Anbar's provincial capital, west of Baghdad, which links the Iraqi capital to the borders with Syria and Jordan.
Photographer: Azhar Shallal/AFP via Getty Images
Members of the Iraqi security forces keep watch on Aug. 14, 2014 on the main highway near Ramadi, Anbar's provincial capital, west of Baghdad, which links the Iraqi capital to the borders with Syria and Jordan.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s effort to have Arabs take the lead in combating Islamic State suffered a setback when Sunni lawmakers quit talks on forming a new Iraqi government after Shiite gunmen killed scores of worshipers at a Sunni mosque.

The killings in Diyala province derailed at least temporarily attempts to form an Iraqi government with bigger roles for Sunni Arabs and Kurds that would strengthen the fight against the terrorist group. Tensions remained high today after a suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden car into the gate of the intelligence headquarters in Baghdad, killing at least 11, the Associated Press reported.

The breakdown in talks came as U.S. officials underscored a growing threat posed by Islamic State, which also is known as ISIL, for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy White House national security adviser, said yesterday that the U.S. will consider airstrikes in Syria to combat Islamic State, which beheaded American journalist James Foley earlier this month. The group said Foley’s execution was in retaliation for U.S. strikes, which have helped Kurdish and Iraqi forces to regain some territory.

“Any strategy to deal with the ISIL organization has to deal with both sides of the border in Iraq and Syria,” Rhodes told reporters at a briefing yesterday on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where Obama is vacationing. While Obama hasn’t approved such strikes yet, “we’re not going to be restricted by borders,” Rhodes said.

Airstrikes Continue

The U.S. continued to press the militants today, conducting another airstrike that destroyed a vehicle near Mosul, where Islamic State has occupied the country’s biggest dam. It was the 94th U.S. strike in Iraq since Aug. 8, and the 61st near the dam, according to a statement from the U.S. Central Command.

The creation of a more inclusive government in Baghdad is crucial to three U.S. objectives: rebuilding Iraqi security forces, recruiting more Sunni tribal leaders to fight Islamic State, and enlisting the aid of neighboring Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Some administration officials said they and the president are wary of expanding the overt U.S. role. Doing so risks unwittingly assisting the extremists’ efforts to define the conflict as part of a centuries-old Christian crusader and Jewish war against Islam, said six officials who asked for anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations.

Civilian Casualties

Expanded airstrikes, especially if they extend to populated areas, also would run an increased risk of causing civilian casualties and property damage. That could drive some Iraqis and Syrians into the arms of Islamic State, these officials said. Like Hamas in Gaza, IS would use civilians, including Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen and other minorities, as human shields.

Instead, three of the officials said, Obama has emphasized the need for Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister-designate Haidar al-Abadi to grant Sunnis and Kurds more power and positions in a new government.

Without that, these officials said, Sunni tribes in central Iraq that in 2006 joined U.S. forces in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq, a predecessor to IS, will remain on the sidelines or allied with the extremists.

The Kurds, who’ve done much of the fighting so far, will be reluctant to fight outside the northern areas they claim, especially if the Kurdistan Regional Government remains at odds with the central government over the right to sell oil.

Sunni State

Lawyers for the Iraqi Ministry of Oil last month persuaded a U.S. magistrate judge to issue an arrest warrant for $100 million in Kurdish crude sitting in a tanker off the Texas coast if the ship enters U.S. territorial waters.

The U.S. officials who favor a combination of increased military assistance to a new Iraqi government, covert cooperation with Sunni tribes and outreach to neighboring states say that the U.S. can take advantage of a growing awareness of the threat IS poses to mainstream Sunnis.

Most Iraqi Sunnis, these officials argue, have little in common with the extremists’ harsh interpretation of Islam, and have sided with them only because of their common loathing for the Shiite regime of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad.

The key, these officials argue, is to help define the war against IS as the culmination of a longstanding battle between mainstream and extremist visions of Islam, not one pitting Sunnis against Shiites, Christians, Jews and others seen as infidels.

Biden Op-Ed

Iraq’s survival, including its ability to beat IS, depends on Iraqis rising above their differences, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden wrote yesterday in an op-ed in the Washington Post. He and Obama are encouraged by signs of Iraqi leaders recognizing the need to end the deadlock, he said.

Doing so would require acknowledging that, in opposing Islamic State, the U.S. and Sunni Arabs have a common interest with traditional foes such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah, which the U.S., the European Union and Israel consider a terrorist organization.

The officials say the alternative of expanding U.S. military action in Iraq and Syria, perhaps with advisers and combat troops to reinforce the depleted and demoralized Iraqi army, would risk embroiling the U.S. in another Mideast war it can’t win.

Whether Obama decides to extend airstrikes into Syria, one of the officials said, depends in part on whether U.S. intelligence locates suitable IS targets there that don’t carry a high risk of causing civilian casualties.

Syrian airspace, the official added, is more dangerous than Iraq’s because of its air defenses, and targeting may be more difficult because there’s little intelligence on the ground of the sort that Kurdish fighters are providing in Iraq.

To contact the reporters on this story: John Walcott in Washington at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net; Zaid Sabah in Washington at zalhamid@bloomberg.net; Lisa Lerer in Washington at llerer@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Maura Reynolds at mreynolds34@bloomberg.net; John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net; James Amott at jamott@bloomberg.net; Randall Hackley at rhackley@bloomberg.net

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