Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s U.S. visit comes midstream in an effort to push back the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, just after it was handed a defeat in Tikrit, Iraq. That battle made clear that the prime minister has a Hezbollah problem on his hands: Powerful Iranian-backed Shia militias are calling their own shots. But Tikrit uncovered the limits of the militias’ prowess and the indispensability of U.S. airpower. Abadi’s trip offers an important opportunity to ensure that the U.S.-led coalition efforts to defeat ISIS strengthen Abadi’s government and keep Iraq together rather than break it apart.
By initiating the Tikrit offensive outside the formal Iraqi chain of command, Shia militias and their Iranian sponsors eroded the authority of Prime Minister Abadi’s government in Baghdad. Making matters worse, they risked further inflaming the sectarianism that allowed ISIS to seize vast swaths of Iraqi territory last summer. Many of the 20,000 Shia militiamen involved in the attack belonged to groups whose abuse of Sunni Arabs has been well documented by Human Rights Watch and others. These same militias now appear to be in in charge in many towns liberated from ISIS—a fact that local Sunni Arabs are unlikely to welcome.
But despite hefty Iranian support, these irregular fighters were unable to expel ISIS. Only after the Iraqi government requested coalition air support did the Iraqis prevail. As Vice President Joe Biden made clear in his speech on April 9, air support came only after the Iraqi government reassured the United States that “all elements in the fight operated strictly under the chain of command of the Iraqi military.” This caused those Shia militias with deep ties to Iran to back off from the fight; newer militias, mustered in recent months in response to the ISIS threat and with fewer ties to Tehran, stayed in the fight. In the end, the coalition emerged as the essential partner to success, and militias that put the priority on defeating ISIS—rather than on spreading Iranian influence—made themselves known.
Most importantly, Mr. Abadi reasserted the primacy of the Iraqi government in the fight against ISIS. The task of the U.S.-led coalition going forward is to ensure that he stays in control and that military events do not surpass political progress. To accomplish this, the United States should take two steps. First, it should leverage its military power to ensure that the Iraqi government—and not Iranian-backed Shia militias—is leading the fight against ISIS. This past weekend, the American ambassador to Iraq, Stuart Jones, moved in the right direction when he warned the Iraqis that the U.S. would not support new operations in Anbar if Shia militia did not withdraw. Second, the Iraqi government must find a way to reintegrate largely Sunni Arab communities back into Iraqi politics.
The United States cannot and should not exclude all Shia militia from the fight against ISIS. But as in Tikrit, the United States can refrain from providing air support to operations that rely disproportionally on those militia with a well-known history of bad behavior. It will be critical to use this leverage to ensure that the most sectarian Shia militias stay off the front lines as Iraqi forces move deeper into the Sunni Arab heartland. Both the coalition and the Iraqi government should make greater efforts to raise local forces in Sunni-heavy locales such as Mosul and Anbar. In addition, Sunni Arab leaders such as Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi should be given a central role in the next phase of the fight against ISIS. Prime Minister Abadi must be the one to set the strategic direction of the Iraqi fight against ISIS, not Iranian-backed militia commanders. The Obama administration should make these conditions for coalition military support clear to all when Abadi meets with U.S. officials this week.
The coalition should further bolster the Iraqi government by listening to the strategic priorities of Prime Minister Abadi. His government is focused on Anbar, not Mosul, as the next objective in the counteroffensive. Coalition political leaders and military planners should follow Baghdad’s lead. Iraqi Security Forces, or ISF, may need more time to prepare for Mosul. Anbar is also closer to ISF supply lines and coalition support bases. A focus on Anbar could build confidence in the evenhandedness of the Iraq army—particularly among the Sunni Arab militias already fighting ISIS in the province. The campaign to oust ISIS should build the strength and cohesion of the Iraqi state. If this means delaying the push to Mosul until the Iraqi Security Forces are ready, so be it.
Beyond the battlefield lurks the vexing conundrum of how best to reintegrate Iraq’s Sunni Arab communities after ISIS is expelled. American officials have proposed a national guard concept to incorporate local Sunni Arab forces—successors to the Awakening militias fighting in Anbar and other areas—into Iraq’s security forces. But this proposal remains stalled in Iraq’s parliament. More generally, Sunni Arabs must be reassured that they will never again be subjected to the whim of a Shia Islamist-dominated government in Baghdad.
One option might be a more formal recognition of the de facto decentralization resulting from the conflict with ISIS. Such an outcome will be hard to engineer in the post-Saddam Iraqi political system. But it is incumbent on Iraq’s allies to help find a solution that gives Sunni Arabs a home in Iraq’s body politic and a solution that gives the state its best chance of hanging together. Prime Minister Abadi’s visit allows the Obama administration to raise these concerns at the highest level.
Last summer, the Obama administration used the promise of military assistance to remove then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from power. Today, the United States and its coalition partners can use the same leverage to help Prime Minister Abadi rebuild the authority of the Iraqi government and fend off challenges from Iranian-backed Shia militias. The only successful path to an enduring victory of ISIS requires the Iraqi government to survive the forces tearing at it from all sides. Prime Minister Abadi’s visit represents an opportunity for the United States to give his government the leverage it needs to withstand the storm.
Hardin Lang is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.