Alaa Al-Marjani / Reuters Iraqi security forces demonstrate their skills during military training in Jurf al-Sakhar, April 9, 2015.

Still Winning in Iraq

The Right Way to Fight ISIS

Two months ago, my colleague and I published a Foreign Affairs piece warning about the political challenges that lay ahead in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, where the government and its security forces, with U.S. and international support, were seeking to rout the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS). We made three main points.

First, the Iraqi government could not simply conduct a repeat play of the Sunni Awakening, particularly because the Sons of Iraq and other Sunni leaders who had joined with the U.S. military to fight al Qaeda in the 2006–07 period have since lost their local credibility.

Second, Baghdad must lay the political groundwork, preferably before it tries to reconquer ISIS-controlled cities militarily, including allaying legitimate socioeconomic grievances in this region. Only fair and accountable governance—and the provision of services by Baghdad—can ensure the endurance of tactical Iraqi security forces (ISF) gains.

Third, Washington should not ease the pressure on Baghdad that it had started exerting last fall. Instead, it must do more to push the Shiite political parties still running Iraq to integrate non-elite, tribal, and diverse Sunnis into the political system, ISF, and local security infrastructures in Anbar, Nineveh, and Salah ad Din provinces. The United States still has significant, although diminishing, leverage over Iraqi officials, particularly since the U.S.-led coalition air strikes against ISIS and training efforts continue to protect the Baghdad government and its forces.

A Shia paramilitary fighter puts Iraqi flags over a wall painted with the black flag commonly used by Islamic State militants in Tikrit, March 31, 2015.

A Shia paramilitary fighter puts Iraqi flags over a wall painted with the black flag commonly used by Islamic State militants in Tikrit, March 31, 2015.

The fall of Anbar’s provincial capital, Ramadi, last week to ISIS only underscores these points. In fact, the collapse of Iraqi government forces in Ramadi was a direct result of lingering Sunni grievances about government neglect there, including Baghdad’s months-long failure to pay local police forces. Moreover, the Iraqi parliament has been delaying the plans to formalize the Sunni National Guard units for this area because of Shiite concerns that this plan, initially put forward by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi himself, may empower Sunnis in Anbar and other provinces.

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