It's Either U.S. Boots on the Ground or Backing the Shiite Militias

Members of the Iraqi army and Shiite fighters launch a mortar at ISIS militants on the outskirts of the city of Falluja on May 19, 2015. Reuters

The takeover of Ramadi by ISIS on May 17 highlights the stark choice the United States faces in Iraq. If the United States wants to substantially degrade ISIS and loosen its territorial grip on much of Iraq, it has to accept that the Iraqi-backed Shiite militias will play a central role in that fight.

Washington has been unwilling to face this choice and deluded itself that it could fight ISIS without the Shiite militias. This led to the loss of Ramadi. While this setback may be temporary, there will be more setbacks unless the United States is willing to accept reality.

The Obama administration's strategy of only using airpower and relying on Iraqis to provide the indispensable boots on the ground is not flawed in itself, but it can work only if Iraqis provide those troops. No other country will.

There are three sources of Iraqi fighters: the Iraqi military, the Shiite militias and the Kurdish peshmerga. The Iraqi military collapsed in June 2014 in the face of ISIS's first large-scale assault in Iraq, surrendering Mosul and most of Nineveh province. Much of the western Anbar province was already controlled by ISIS long before then. The United States has been betting that it can retrain and reorganize the Iraqi military into an effective fighting force.

But what it cannot do, as the debacle in Ramadi shows, is give the Iraqi army the motivation to fight. Once again, when confronted by ISIS, the military units withdrew, leaving many of their weapons behind to the undoubted delight of ISIS fighters.

The Shiite militias, on the other hand, have shown their willingness to fight. They are probably not as well trained as the military units, although many of their members are among the recruits the United States trained over the years but later disappeared from the military. This is probably true of many ISIS fighters too.

The Shiite militias are also probably less well equipped—recently published photos show heavy Iraqi military equipment heading out of Ramadi and pickup trucks loaded with militia members rushing toward it. The equipment of the militias may be worse, but their morale and determination are higher.

The problem with the Shiite militias is that the major ones have ties to Iran, some of which go back to the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War. The militias are armed and trained by Iran through the Quds Force and are only nominally under the control of Baghdad.

On the other hand, Sunni militias, which theoretically could and should play the central role in the liberation of Anbar or Mosul, do not exist on a significant scale so far. Sunni ambivalence about both ISIS and the Iraqi government, in conjunction with Baghdad's fear that mobilized and armed Sunni militias could turn against it and possibly join ISIS, has helped keep whatever tribal militias that have emerged small, disorganized and, in the battle for Ramadi, ineffective.

The Kurdish forces—the peshmerga—have proved to be effective. They are highly motivated to fight to protect Kurdistan and secure the contested territory around its periphery in the Nineveh, Kirkuk and Saladin provinces, but Kurdish leadership has declared repeatedly that the peshmerga will not be deployed in other parts of Iraq. They will thus not be a factor in Anbar, but they nevertheless deserve more U.S. support through the direct delivery of weapons, because it is important that ISIS makes no further inroads in the areas they defend, particularly in the Kirkuk oil fields.

The Obama administration and the Pentagon have been deluding themselves that the battle against ISIS can be won without the participation of the Shiite militias. Testifying in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 26, General Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, declared that the United States had entered the battle for Tikrit by bombing ISIS targets only after the Iraqi government had agreed to order the Shiite militias to withdraw. "I will not, and I hope we never, coordinate or cooperate with Shi'a militias," he added.

Victory in Tikrit briefly appeared to vindicate the U.S. contention that the Iraqi military could do the job alone, although it is not certain that the militias withdrew completely. When the battle moved to Ramadi, the United States again made its airstrikes conditional on the exclusion of the militias from the battle. They were, and Tikrit fell.

The United States finally accepted the need for the Shiite militias, although hiding behind the fiction that the militias would be under the control of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. In reality, if the militias are close to any Iraqi leader, they are close to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, now openly anti-American and pro-Iranian, and not to Abadi.

With the help of the militias and stepped-up U.S. bombing, and if Baghdad manages to rally its troops to reenter the battle, Ramadi will eventually be taken back. ISIS does not appear to have sufficient personnel to indefinitely resist a sustained assault. As in the case of Tikrit, it may decide to leave Ramadi and take the battle to a different location.

But even if Ramadi turns out to be only a temporary setback, as optimistic Pentagon and State Department officials have repeated, the lesson is clear: In the fight against ISIS, Baghdad at present is dependent on the Shiite militias, particularly in areas where the peshmerga will not fight. As a result, so is the United States, unless it decides to send U.S. troops into combat instead.

This is not a good situation. Participation of Shiite militias in the fighting in Sunni provinces will exacerbate sectarian tensions, although the predominantly Sunni leaders of the Anbar provincial council are desperate enough to have asked for their intervention.

Baghdad urgently needs to encourage the formation of Sunni militias. At the same time, it must open a dialogue about a future governance structure for Iraq that gives a greater role to Sunnis, thus giving them something to fight for.

It is not clear that the United States can do much to influence the Iraqi government to take those steps, particularly while Abadi's power remains shaky and Maliki is becoming increasingly vocal.

What is certain is that if the United States wants to succeed against ISIS, it has to coordinate and cooperate with the Shiite militias and Iran. The United States returned to Iraq, reluctantly, because of the threat posed by ISIS, and that is what it must concentrate on, not on a new futile effort to change Iraq.

From 2003 to 2011, Washington attempted to rebuild Iraq into the country it wanted it to be, and it failed. It lost the battle for influence in Iraq to Tehran long ago—by 2003 Iran already was embedded in the Iraqi militias and political parties it had helped set up. This is a reality the United States has to accept.

So the choice now is simple but unpleasant: Either the United States works with the Shiite militias and Iran, however indirectly, in degrading ISIS or, once again, it withdraws from Iraq. Neither choice is good, but the former is less bad.

Marina Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. This article first appeared on the Woodrow Wilson Center site.

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