The Iraqi Army announced on Monday that it had reclaimed the Sunni-majority city of Ramadi from the Islamic State. But Iraq and its Western allies had best curb its enthusiasm: Counting the win as a major victory obscures how bad Iraq still has it. While the reduction of Islamic State territory is a delight in the abstract, in this case it comes with a reminder that the ongoing collapse of Iraq has much less to do with ISIS than we'd like to believe.
We can trace the reason why back to Ramadi's fall this May, when approximately 6,000 Iraqi police were bested by 150 Islamic State fighters, according to Kurdish intelligence and statistics shared with former U.S. Central Command advisor Ali Khedery. The jihadi force, which peaked this winter at perhaps 400 militants, managed to drive the Iraqi Army, special forces, and government personnel out of Ramadi.
The obvious question is why, and for close observers of Iraqi politics, the answer is just as obvious. The country's Shia faction has cemented control not only over the Baghdad government but the balance of military power, fusing these two levers together into a single instrument of policy designed to destroy Sunni influence.
Just as the Shia regime has ensured that U.S. arms earmarked for the Kurdish peshmerga arrive as slowly as possible, if at all, it has also done its best to keep Sunni elements of the Iraqi army dispirited, disorganized, and weak. It was a typically beleaguered and sabotaged Sunni force in Ramadi that was chased away — but not before Baghdad added insult to injury, allowing Ramadi to beg for help from controversial Shia militias that have been blamed for atrocities against Sunnis. The U.S., which feared sectarian violence and Iranian opportunism, greenlit the aid, "provided that the militias were under the command of [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider] Abadi, and not Iranian advisers, and that the militias were properly organized to avoid American bombing runs," as The New York Times reported. We all know how that cry for succor turned out: Ramadi fell and stayed down for half a year.
U.S. officials are beginning to leak more dispiriting news. Under Abadi, who already purged his forces of loyalists to the previous Shiite Prime Minister, the Baghdad regime has begun wiping out the Army's Sunni leadership, replacing it with members of the Iran-guided Badr Corps, one of the stronger Shiite militias. "The Iraqi Ministry of Interior has also fired several thousands of other Sunni security forces in the past several weeks while continuing to arrest and 'disappear' thousands of Sunnis," sources told The Hill. Translation? In Iraq, to push ISIS out is to pull sectarian war in.
It's been a nightmare years in the making. Where Shiite militias pop up to reduce the Islamic State, they boot out as many local Sunnis as they can. And in case you didn't see this one coming, reports are now coming through that the Shiite militias are all over the ground in Ramadi, too — securing the alleged victory that supposedly belongs to the U.S.-led Sunni contingent of the Iraqi Army.
What is the Obama administration doing about it? Good question.
Intel and military resources, belatedly trained on the Islamic State problem, can hardly penetrate the carapace of the Shiite forces and their Iranian protectors. Meanwhile, the administration must go on acting as if it wasn't clear from the beginning that Iraq could not field a national army. This was the primary reason to leave U.S. forces in place — a politically untenable fact for the White House, and one that was brushed aside.
So now what? That, unfortunately, poses an even better question. The administration's desperate rush toward anything resembling peace in Syria belies its very real fear that the next Syria is already unfolding right next door.