WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD – President Barack Obama, whose top foreign policy achievements include killing Osama bin Laden and ending the war in Iraq, now faces the prospect of a safe haven for anti-Western extremists emerging in the Arab country.
While the president has no intention of sending troops to Iraq, the capture of Fallujah and portions of Ramadi by Sunni Islamist militants threatens the gains his administration has made against al-Qaida-linked terrorists.
Obama must deal with the threat of al-Qaida units building a stronghold in western Iraq, say foreign policy analysts, including two who served in his administration and agree that the U.S. should not send troops.
Control of tracts of Iraqi territory by Sunni extremists will pose “a serious long-term threat” to U.S. interests if the groups maintain their hold, said Daniel Benjamin, who was State Department counterterrorism coordinator under Obama.
“Once safe havens are created, they can pretty quickly become hardened, and it becomes difficult to dislodge the militants without a major effort,” said Benjamin, now director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. “These areas become conduits for men, money and materiel, and they give extremists a place to plot, which is dangerous for the neighborhood and, ultimately, for us.”
While the administration will not consider returning combat troops to Iraq two years after Obama withdrew them, the U.S. is speeding delivery of military equipment to the Iraqi government to help with the fight against the militias.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration plans to ship additional Hellfire missiles to Iraq within months and send surveillance drones within weeks.
Tehran signaled Monday that it is willing to follow suit, saying it is ready to help Iraq battle al-Qaida “terrorists” by sending military equipment and advisers should Baghdad ask for it. It is unclear whether Baghdad would take up the Iranian offer, made by Gen. Mohammad Hejazi, the Iranian Army deputy chief-of-staff, in comments to Iranian state media.
Any direct Iranian help would exacerbate sectarian tensions fueling Iraq’s conflict, as Iraqi Sunnis accuse Tehran of backing what they say are their Shiite-led government’s unfair policies against them. Iran has the power to sway al-Maliki’s political fortunes ahead of upcoming elections through its deep ties to Iraq’s major Shiite factions, which have dominated government offices and security forces since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Iran’s arch-foe Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Carney also rejected some Republican lawmakers’ criticism that the growing violence in Iraq is a consequence of the U.S. withdrawal.
“There was sectarian conflict, violent sectarian conflict, in Iraq when there were 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground there,” he said. “So the idea that this would not be happening if there were 10,000 troops in Iraq, I think, bears scrutiny.”
Iraqi security forces, militias or tribesmen may soon start an attack to retake Fallujah, after about 9,000 families fled the city, a government official said.
“I believe that a final combat will take place soon,” Faleh al-Issawi, deputy head of the provincial council of Anbar, said by telephone from Ramadi. Special forces have started operations in Fallujah and the army has surrounded it, Agence France-Presse reported.
U.S. Marines in 2004 fought bloody battSunni forces to bring Fallujah under Iraqi government control. Militants now have seized some of the equipment that the marines left behind for local police.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has “more than enough troops” at his disposal to quell militants in Anbar province, said James Jeffrey, who was Obama’s U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012.
The U.S. can best help with intelligence, weapons, and assistance with coordination as well as “getting whatever commitment we can from al-Maliki” not to treat the country’s Sunni minority “as second-class citizens.”
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with al-Maliki by phone Monday and encouraged him to work with Sunni leaders, according to a statement released by the White House.
Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, said Obama has “very limited options” to help counter the insurgency, which is fueled by Sunni grievances over treatment by the Shiite-dominated government.
Intelligence assistance “would help Baghdad but not decisively,” Riedel said. “What it lacks is a political strategy to defeat al-Qaida and rally Arab Sunni support. Washington can’t provide that; only Baghdad can.”
Still, the al-Qaida-linked groups’ capacity to hold the territory in Iraq is unclear.
“The Iraqi government is going to crush these guys,” said John Nagl, a retired army lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq and was co-author of the army’s counterinsurgency manual. “They’re just going to kill a lot of Iraqi civilians when they do so, because they don’t have an alternative.”
The al-Qaida threats in Fallujah and Ramadi are “largely local and regional” and, while “very serious” in the near term, are probably temporary, he said. “There’s no threat to the United States except insofar as it provides a rallying cry for al-Qaida, which has had a tough couple of years.”