Fallujah. Ramadi. Haditha. Americans know the names of the cities and assets in Iraq’s Anbar Province well. Their liberation was paid for in American blood.
Those places have either fallen to or are currently besieged by the Islamic State. With Iraqi Security Forces seemingly unable to retake territory lost to ISIS, despite forestalling the group’s advance on Baghdad, the Pentagon is now considering submitting to President Barack Obama a plan that would recommend sending U.S. troops back to Anbar.
“U.S. advisers currently operate in areas around Baghdad and Irbil in the north of the country,” CNN reported. “The new proposal would put U.S. troops in the middle of some of the most violent situations in Iraq.”
U.S. officials maintain that Iraqi support for Sunni tribes going on the offensive against ISIS will be a necessary part in the effort to defeat the militants, who are also called ISIL and refer to themselves as the Islamic State.
In a news conference with reporters Thursday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, signaled the possibility of the new role when he said the Iraqi government had not yet requested U.S. military support in efforts to defend a Sunni tribe that has suffered mass executions at the hands of ISIS militants.
“That’s why we need to expand the train-advise-and-assist mission into the Al- Anbar Province,” Dempsey said. “But the precondition for that is that the government of Iraq is willing to arm the tribes.”
“To be clear, this is not a change in mission nor is it a combat role, as they will be operating in the same advisory role as the other locations,” cautioned Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Col. Edward Thomas, fearing the political fallout of such a move would be dramatic.
“From the beginning of the campaign, we have said that we would expand this type of support to the Iraqi government should they act in a manner that was representative of the security interests of all Iraqis,” he added.
Political operatives will parse and downplay the nature of this development but, if it is agreed to by the president, Americans will intuitively understand the gravity of this decision. American combat advisors, who will return fire if fired upon, are again entering the crucible of warfare in Iraq.
This decision comes just days after it was revealed that mass graves full of the bodies of hundreds of Sunni Iraqis who dared defy ISIS were discovered. ISIS draws much of its authority in Anbar from Sunni tribes who view the brutal militia as a favorable alternative to the Shia government in Baghdad and its sectarian militias, many of which are loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr or the mullahs in Iran.
The BBC revealed the extent of the carnage:
The graves that were found in the province of Anbar may contain between 80 and 220 bodies, reports suggest.
Many of the dead belong to the Al Bu Nimr tribe, which joined Iraq’s Shia-dominated government in fighting IS.
It has also emerged that Islamic State may have killed 600 prisoners at a jail in Mosul they seized in June.
The message America has sent is a clear one: ISIS will soon be on your doorstep, but we won’t be; choose your loyalties accordingly. And may Sunnis have.
Sending American forces back into Anbar to attempt a second “Anbar Awakening,” forging relationships with tribal leaders and convincing them to abandon ISIS, is the only political strategy that will result in coalition gains on the ground. It is a necessary step, but not an easy one. Even though he likely fears the political repercussions associated with doing so, Obama should agree to this strategy. Let’s hope he chooses sound policy over expedient politics.