President Barack Obama suggested Friday that he may order airstrikes next week to slow the advance of jihadi forces towards the capital of Iraq, but only if the divided Iraq government hammers out a long-term political compromise between the nation’s bitterly divided Sunni and Shia communities.
U.S. intelligence services are tracking the fast-changing military situation in the western part of Iraq, “so if I do direct and order any actions there, they’re targeted and precise and they going to have an effect,” he said in a brief statement before taking a weekend trip to political events in the western United States.
“The United States is not simply going to involve itself in military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they will work together,” he said.
“We’re not going to be allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which while we’re there, we’re keeping a lid on things,” without any long term fix for Iraq’s internal conflicts, he said.
Obama repeatedly said Iraq’s civil war is Iraq’s problem, and distanced himself from the country. “It is up to the Iraqis, as a sovereign nation, to solve their problems,” he said.
“As I said before, we are not going to be able to do it for them,”
That stance will help him deal with his base, which strongly supported his complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from a then-quiet Iraq in 2009 and 2010.
Obama’s statement will put the media spotlight back on the divided Iraq government.
That government may not be able to make a deal with Sunni groups — especially if the Sunni groups think the advancing jihadis, who are also Sunnis, can help them regain power over the nation’s oil supplies and the Shia community.
In 2003, the U.S. military overthrew rule by Saddam Hussein’s tribal faction, which consisted mostly of people from the Sunni minority of Iraq.
The majority of Iraq’s Muslim population, however, are Shias, who were brutally suppressed by Saddam’s Sunni allies.
The U.S. military helped the Iraqis hold elections — which were won by the majority Shia groups — and to build an army from roughly 2004 to 2010. Throughout this period, the Shia population centers were repeatedly hit by vicious street bombing attacks from the Sunni minority, and by its allies among the al-Qaida network of jihad groups.
The so-called “surge” offensive by President George W. Bush smashed the Sunni rebellion in 2007, partly because Bush brokered a deal between the Shia government and many Sunni tribes, but also because non-government Shia militias killed many suspected Sunni rebels.
Obama pulled all U.S. forces out of the country by the end of 2010, after saying that he could not negotiate a basing deal with Iraq’s government that protected U.S. troops from lawsuits and arrests.
Subsequently, the Shia government largely discarded its deals with the Sunni tribes, and also replaced many U.S.-trained army officers with politically loyal appointees.
This week, much of that Shia-majority army broke and ran when it was attacked by a smaller group of Sunni jihadis from the region straddling the Iraq and Syrian borders.
“The fact that they are not willing to stand and fight against admittedly hardened terrorists [although] not terrorists who are overwhelming in numbers, indicates that there is problem in terms of morale, in terms of commitment, and ultimately, that is rooted in the political problems that have plagued the country for a very long time.”