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A Whack-a-Mole Game We Can’t Win

Why the impending Iraqi offensive to retake Ramadi from the Islamic State group is doomed.

By Kate Gould and Wardah Khalid June 2, 2015. Originally published on US News.

The Iraqi army’s impending offensive to retake Ramadi from Islamic State group control is bound to end in catastrophe. Unleashing sectarian militias and the Iraqi army on Ramadi will only continue this bloody whack-a-mole game against the Islamic State group. The only way to permanently halt the advance of the Islamic State group and other extremist groups is to deal with Iraqi grievances at the negotiating table instead of on the battlefield.

Since the Islamic State group tightened its grip on Ramadi last month, more than 500 Iraqi civilians and soldiers have been killed, and 40,000 others have fled from their homes. If there isn’t a change of course, the Islamic State group could use Ramadi as a stronghold from which to launch devastating attacks on Baghdad, which sits only 70 miles west of this now-Islamic State controlled city. This isn’t the first time the United States’ military-first approach has failed Ramadi. This is the same city where U.S. forces were embroiled in battle nearly a decade ago, and while some of the players may have changed, the strategy has not.

The collapse of Ramadi should be a wake-up call for the United States to use its leverage – as a major patron of military aid to Iraq – to press for reform of the Iraqi armed forces’ growing notoriety as a gaggle of sectarian militias. Instead, Uncle Sam responded by expediting weapons to the Iraqi army, including AT-4 shoulder-held rockets, ammunition and other supplies. At the same time, U.S. weaponry is increasingly ending up in the hands of Islamic State group militants.

During the Islamic State group’s assault on Ramadi, the Iraqi army abandoned yet another stockpile of U.S. weaponry. In addition to the weapons, U.S. taxpayers are spending $8.1 million per day on airstrikes in a military battle with no exit strategy. The U.S. continues pouring more money into training the Iraqi army how to fight the Islamic State group, even while the Iraqi army’s primary crisis is not one of funding, but one of internal legitimacy. All this for a conflict that even the Obama administration and top military leaders have admitted has no military solution.

The Islamic State group’s rise is living proof that violence only begets more violence. The militant group emerged from the turmoil unleashed by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, as well as the power vacuum created during the Syrian civil war. For years, the Iraqi government has systematically disenfranchised Iraqis in Sunni-majority areas, resulting in deep and widespread mistrust of the Iraqi government.

In 2013, the Iraqi government, led by then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, crushed largely nonviolent demonstrations in Sunni-majority areas, reinforcing the notion that Iraq’s Sunni-majority communities could face the same iron fist clampdown that raged throughout the region during the so-called Arab Spring. While Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi committed to an agenda of unification after Maliki’s reign, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations have reported that militias overseen in part by the Iraqi army have continued to perpetrate gross human rights abuses.

Militant groups like the Islamic State group have appealed to this growing resentment of the Iraqi government in predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq, and to the sense of desperation that has long consumed the country. The Islamic State group has continued to gain territory and fighters from around the globe by preying on the most vulnerable with its perverted ideology and brute strength.

The abuses of the Iraqi army and its associated militias have only made it easier for the Islamic State group to find recruits. In addition, these groups are now notorious for their violent transgressions in Sunni areas. The abuses documented by human rights organizations include forcing Iraqis in Sunni areas from their homes, kidnapping them and even lining up dozens of civilians for summary executions.

Political reconciliation efforts need to be focused on including Iraq’s tribal leaders from Anbar province and other Sunni-majority communities. Many of these communities see themselves as being caught between a rock and a hard place. While they do not support the Islamic State group, they know that vociferously opposing it could be interpreted by some as tacit support for the Iraqi army and affiliated militias that are fomenting sectarian strife throughout the country. As a result, many choose to remain neutral until the Iraqi government changes course.

The deja vu battle for Ramadi illustrates how critical it is for the United States, the Iraqi government and the international community to understand the root causes of Iraq’s vicious civil war. The first step for outside actors to de-escalate Iraq’s war is to stop sending arms and dropping bombs on the country, which has persisted as a U.S. bipartisan tradition for nearly a quarter century. Reducing foreign military intervention and increasing accountability for the Iraqi government’s abuses is essential. Only internal Iraqi political reconciliation can extinguish Iraq’s inferno. 

 

Posted by Angela Miller.

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