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Obama Faces Limited Options in Iraq

  • Meredith Buel

U.S. President Barack Obama is considering a range of military options to help the Iraqi government break the momentum of Islamic militants determined to crush the government in Baghdad. The Iraqi army has partially disintegrated in the face of these attacks, despite years of training and funding by the United States.

Iraqi security forces are trying to retake ground lost to militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and prevent them from getting closer to Baghdad.

The radical group, inspired by al-Qaida, overran Mosul and then stormed toward Baghdad as Iraqi security forces collapsed.

President Obama says the fact the Iraqi military will not stand and fight reflects the fractured politics of the country.

“There’s a problem with morale, there’s a problem in terms of commitment. And ultimately, that’s rooted in the political problems that have plagued the country for a very long time,” says Obama.

After invading in 2003, the U.S. spent billions training Iraqi security forces.

Pentagon Spokesman Admiral John Kirby says the U.S. thought Iraqi forces had reached an adequate degree of preparedness.

“When we left Iraq in 2011, we left Iraqi security forces at a level of competency, particularly on counterterrorism that we believed was appropriate to the threats that they faced,” says Kirby.

But Sunni Muslims began protesting what they felt was unfair treatment by the predominantly Shi’ite government in Baghdad.

Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, says problems have been slowly fomenting.

“And in recent times, especially in the aftermath in the U.S. withdrawal, there has been increased ethnic and sectarian polarization,” says Khalilzad.

And those sectarian divisions, analysts say, prompted Iraqi security forces to flee rather than fight since few felt any loyalty to the government in Baghdad.

Rampant corruption, poor leadership and demoralized troops, experts say, led soldiers to shed their uniforms and retreat when threatened by the insurgents.

Now Obama administration officials are debating how to bolster the Iraqi army.

Senior analyst Michael Rubin with the American Enterprise Institute says it might require a substantial effort.

"We've got to support the Iraqis as they defeat al-Qaida whatever it takes. That's probably going to mean some sort of air support,” says Rubin.

But other experts say drones or manned aircraft will only have a limited impact.

Military strategist and retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner says “it is enough to stop them, but not enough to reverse the gains.”

Another complication, say analysts, is that donors from wealthy Arab countries are funding the flow of arms into Syria’s civil war.

Now Islamic extremists from that conflict are threatening the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Middle East expert Michael O’Hanlon from the Brookings Institution says the onus is on Maliki.

“Maliki is going to have to do these things, he is going to have to be more inclusive or the Gulf states will not stop their support for hardline Sunni groups,” says O’Hanlon.


U.S. officials say the jihadis must be stopped before they can establish a safe haven in the region.

The militants want to carve out an Islamic emirate stretching from Syria through Iraq.

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