Kerry flies to Baghdad in last-ditch effort to unify Iraqis against ISIS

Iraq lost control of most of its western border in fighting over the last few days as ISIS has now rolled all the way down to Jordan. The al-Qaeda offshoot claimed control of a border crossing that connects to the US ally while still threatening Iraq’s capital, Baghdad:


Al-Qaeda-inspired rebels captured three more towns in the western Iraqi province of Anbar on Sunday, expanding their onslaught against crumbling Iraqi security forces deeper into the heart of the Middle East.

The latest conquests give the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) unchecked control of hundreds of miles of territory spanning the Iraqi-Syrian border, erasing the line drawn between the two countries by colonial powers.

The gains also put the militants within easy reach of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, U.S. allies that are among those in the region watching with alarm as the fighters rout Iraqi security forces and close in on Baghdad.

Reports that ISIS fighters had also seized a crossing post on the border with Jordan could not be independently confirmed. There was no indication that either Jordan or Saudi Arabia is under immediate threat from the fighters, whose recent offensives have focused on areas of Iraq and Syria that would form the nucleus of their proposed pan-Islamic state, modeled along the lines of the 7th-century Islamic caliphate.

If Iraq has lost control of the Turabil crossing, this presents a huge danger to Jordan and its flood of refugees from the Syrian civil war. ISIS is not likely to be big fans of the Jordanian government, which has diplomatic relations with Israel and a good relationship with the US. The Jordanian military has better unit cohesion and morale than does Iraq’s military, though, and the nearby Saudis would likely ally with them against any ISIS incursions in the Turabil area.


The Washington Post suggests that these ISIS forces sweeping through Iraq’s southwest are turning to the east anyway, toward Baghdad. That would make for a separate prong for the Sunni terrorist army, mostly through relatively friendly country, one that would put pressure on Baghdad’s defenses to spread across two or more fronts. If the forces in Iraq are to survive, they will have to unite, which is exactly the message John Kerry brought with him when meeting with Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad today:

Confronting the threat of civil war in Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Baghdad on Monday to personally urge the Shiite-led government to give more power to political opponents before a Sunni insurgency seizes more control across the country and sweeps away hopes for lasting peace.

CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan reports that in a nearly two-hour long meeting, Kerry urged Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders to form an inclusive coalition government with grassroots support to try and counter the sectarian violence sweeping the country.

The meeting between Kerry and, which took place at al-Maliki’s residence not long after Kerry’s arrival, was never expected to be friendly, given that officials in Washington have floated suggestions that the Iraqi premier should resign as a necessary first step toward quelling the vicious uprising.

Brennan says that while the Obama administration has made clear it would not mind seeing a new prime minister in Iraq, it has stopped short of actually asking al-Maliki to step down.


Iran has applied pressure in the opposite direction, the Washington Post reported:

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, slammed U.S. policies in Iraq as “interference” on Sunday and made clear that Shiite Iran does not support American plans to find a new leader. …

In a clear reference to U.S. hopes of replacing Maliki, Khamenei also accused Washington of wanting to “dominate Iraq and have its agents rule over the country.”

“The United States is dissatisfied with the result of elections in Iraq, and they want to deprive the Iraqi people of their achievement of a democratic system, which they achieved without U.S. interference,” Khamenei said.

So much for Iran and the US working together to solve this crisis, eh? Even if Maliki was to change his stripes now and become an ecumenical inclusivist, which Sunni leaders would trust him at this point more than they’d trust ISIS and the former Ba’athist dead-enders who succored them during the Saddam Hussein era? That question might still apply even if Maliki himself stepped down, since there are now so few Sunnis left in in military and political leadership, thanks to purges and power plays conducted by Maliki in the vacuum left by American withdrawal. The Shi’ite Iranians have no problem with Shi’a domination, which means that Maliki has even more incentive to look to Tehran for assistance rather than the US.

The New York Times offers a look at how that leverage slipped away from the US in the first place:


The journey from then to now is a tale of premature celebration and dashed hopes. A president who thought he had set Iraq on a more stable course that could be sustained without American help has now determined that American diplomacy and power are critical to saving it. Tired of war, like most Americans, he found his aspiration to move on bedeviled by forces tearing across a region in a story punctuated by miscalculation and missed opportunities.

The withdrawal ceremony on that winter day in 2011 was, in the end, the result of a failed negotiation. In theory, both Mr. Obama and the Iraqi leadership wanted a small American detachment to stay behind. In reality, neither side was enthusiastic and seemed just as happy that a dispute over legal conditions scotched the deal.

The residual troops would not have been a combat force, but might have mounted counterterrorism missions and helped Iraqi forces gain better intelligence on the militants. Whether it would have made a difference is impossible to know, but will be a subject of debate for a long time. …

Mr. Obama came to office vowing to withdraw from Iraq but he largely followed an agreement signed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki committing the United States to leave by the end of 2011. Both Washington and Baghdad had imagined that they would negotiate a new agreement for a small residual force after that.

But as 2011 opened, the war had quieted down. After a troop increase ordered by Mr. Bush, a strategy shift by Gen. David H. Petraeus and a change of sides by Sunni militias, Mr. Maliki’s government seemed in a strong position. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander on the ground, developed proposals for keeping as many as 24,000 troops in Iraq after 2011, only to run into instant resistance.


Read on for the rest. Obama eventually got the Pentagon down to a plan for 10,000 troops to continue training and intelligence operations, and then largely threw up his hands rather than “beg” to stay in a place he wanted to leave. At this point, though, that kind of force not only would make a big difference in the defense against ISIS, but it would also provide a lot of leverage on Maliki that we no longer have — and that leverage might have stopped Maliki from conducting his corrosive purges and power grabs in the first place.

As the Times writes, we may not know whether that would have made a difference, but clearly washing our hands of Iraq completely the way we did in 2011 didn’t “end the war” at all.


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David Strom 12:30 PM | April 23, 2024