By James Kitfield
While the Obama administration and much of the global media focused on crises in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip in recent weeks, the centrifugal forces of a sectarian civil war continued to pull Iraq apart. The political deadlock in Baghdad persists, Iran’s grip on the government there has tightened and the Kurds are pushing ahead with a referendum on independence. With Iraqi Security Forces increasingly in disarray, the extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have begun probing the defenses of the capital with a wave of lethal car-bomb attacks in the past week, some of them targeting police checkpoints on major routes into the city.
So dire is the situation in Baghdad that a knowledgeable source there says that top Iraqi military leaders “have their bags packed” in anticipation of possibly having to flee the capital with their families.
Indeed, as the crisis has deepened, Iran has cast a lengthening shadow over Iraq, with legendary Iranian Quds force Commander Qassem Suleimani having flown to Baghdad last month to rally the Shiite militias who now dominate Iraqi Security Forces, and to take charge of Iraqi defenses. A knowledgeable source says that Iranian pilots are now flying the Su-25 fighter jets that Tehran and Moscow rushed to Iraq, which have already conducted more than 40 missions inside Iraq. Because the Su-25s can fly only daytime missions and lack precision-guided weapons, however, their attacks on ISIL forces have led to significant collateral damage to civilians, further inflaming Sunni tribes united in their hated of Tehran.
In top-level government meetings in Baghdad, a senior Quds force commander from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps now sits shoulder-to-shoulder with Iraq’s top military officers. “That is how bad [Iranian interference] is now,” said a knowledgeable source in Baghdad, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly about private discussions.
As long as al-Maliki rules over a sectarian government in Baghdad that is seen as a stalking horse for Tehran, U.S. military leaders say, their options for coming to Iraq’s aid are limited. “The immediate task is to determine whether Iraq has a political future, because if Iraq has a political future, then we will work through Iraq to deal with the ISIS threat,” General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said July 24 at the Aspen Security Forum. If the Iraqi body politic cannot rally around an inclusive unity government — read one not led by al-Maliki — then the U.S. would have to find other regional partners, notably not including Iran.
Not only does Iran have the blood of many U.S. soldiers on its hands through its support of Shiite extremists in Iraq, said Dempsey, but it is supporting terrorist proxies throughout the Middle East. “It wouldn’t make sense to me to embrace a country, a nation-state, that is creating so many other problems.”
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