WASHINGTON -- Days after it lost a vital provincial capital in its fight against the Islamic State group, Iraq's fragile government is now seeing setbacks in another battle: the struggle for U.S. approval and support.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a prominent congressional voice on foreign policy, blasted Baghdad in a Tuesday morning Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters.
"If Iraqis aren't willing to fix the security problem, we shouldn't send the U.S. military to do the job for them," Schiff said, raising the question of whether the U.S. should expand its footprint in Iraq beyond its airstrike campaign and the 3,000 advisers it presently has posted there. He pointed to the Iraqi government's loss of the provincial capital of Ramadi on Sunday as proof Baghdad has yet to craft a strategy that can effectively combat the Islamic State group, also called ISIS or ISIL.
Schiff argued that the Iraqi government's main response to the defeat, which has been a call for Iranian-backed Shiite militias to retake the provincial capital, is another sign the Shiite-led Baghdad government is not effectively building support among Iraqi Sunnis. Many Sunnis have embraced ISIS for reasons that include feeling alienated by powerful Shiites.
"We've lost valuable time in integrating Sunnis into the military and helping them arm the Sunni tribes," Schiff said. "I think it reflects the schizophrenia of the Iraqi regime that wants the Sunnis to be part of it but doesn't trust the Sunnis to be part of it.
"You may have a technical victory on the ground by incorporating the Iranian-backed militias, but you may have a strategic loss if that further strengthens ISIS's grip on the Sunni tribes."
Schiff's skeptical comments come at a difficult moment for U.S.-friendly Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The fall of Ramadi breathed new life into Washington's doubts about his leadership, and a Sunni tribal leader, Sheikh Abdalrazzaq Hatem al-Sulayman, is here this week to lobby for the U.S. to directly support Sunni tribes in Iraq, bypassing Baghdad. Al-Sulayman told the Wall Street Journal he believed Sunni Iraqis did not want help from forces linked to Iran, like the Shiite militias Abadi has relied on for help.
But bashing Abadi carries its own risks for the effort to push back ISIS and hold Iraq together, as dispatches out of Baghdad showed this week. The New York Times reported the fall of Ramadi has opened the prime minister up to criticism from other Shiite Iraqi politicians, some of them sympathetic to his Sunni-targeting predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. These opponents say Abadi must be even more firm in supporting the increasingly popular Shiite militias rather than engaging in U.S.-backed outreach to Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds.
Abadi therefore faces critics on either side and stands weaker than ever, a point Schiff seemed to appreciate as he spoke of continuing to rely on the central Iraqi government. The challenge for the U.S. is how to pressure the prime minister enough to continue his embrace of Sunnis and Kurds without destabilizing his rule and opening the door to leaders more closely tied to Iran.
Iran's defense minister flew to Baghdad after the loss of Ramadi, and Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani has for months been coordinating the operations of various Shiite militias operating within Iraq.
The U.S. has a complicated relationship with Iran in Iraq, as the two for decades have been at odds, but in Iraq are on the same side. The Iranian proxy militias are also battling ISIS, and Iran's air force has targeted the extremist group in what Secretary of State John Kerry called a positive development. But U.S. officials also say they are worried about the potential that those militias, at Tehran's pleasure, could turn on the massive U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad's Green Zone. Additionally, the Obama administration has been embarrassed by evidence that Iraqi units trained by the U.S. have brutalized civilians as they have fought ISIS along the notoriously vicious Shiite militias.
Schiff on Tuesday said the situation demanded the U.S. put greater pressure on Baghdad to integrate Sunni Arabs in its fight.
"We don't want to do anything to blow this up horribly and, frankly, push the Iraqis further into the arms of the Iranians, but I do think we need to do everything we can to maximize our pressure and make sure that we're not going to have American troops close to harm, because [the Iraqi government] isn't willing to bring the Sunnis into the government and into the military," the congressman said.
Concerns about Baghdad's strategy earlier this spring caused members of Congress to propose directly arming Sunni tribes and Kurdish forces in northern Iraq instead of first sending U.S. weapons to the central government. That idea involved Congress recognizing the Sunnis and Kurds as "nations" in the 2016 defense bill, prompting loud criticism from Iraqi politicians in Baghdad and Shiite clerics who felt Iraq's sovereignty was under attack.
Schiff, who voted against the defense bill with the provision to arm the Sunnis and Kurds, noted those sensitivities and said the suggestion of calling the Sunnis and Kurds "nations" died because of them. The Obama administration has "been very deferential to the Iraqi government," he said. "I don't disagree with that. But I think the lethargy within the Iraqi government ... is pretty significant, and we have to put additional pressure on them."
The defense bill, which has yet to be taken up in the Senate, still envisions at least 25 percent of U.S. assistance to Iraq going to the Sunnis and Kurds, and authorizes the administration to boost that to 60 percent if it judges the central Iraqi government is not being sufficiently inclusive of those minorities.
Iraq is receiving support from the U.S., Iran and a range of other countries -- including European allies and Sunni Arab states -- in its effort to undermine the Islamic State group and retake the largely Sunni areas the group presently controls.
Speaking about the Iraqi defeat this week, U.S. defense officials were blunt about the magnitude of the loss and the way reversing it may stoke even further sectarian tensions in Iraq. “ISIL’s gains in Ramadi are a serious setback for its long-suffering inhabitants,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a statement. Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren made clear on Monday that the U.S. envisions the Shiite militias playing a role in retaking the city, as long as they are under Baghdad's control.
“Much effort will now be required to reclaim the city," Dempsey said in his statement.