President Barack Obama announced Thursday he was willing to help the beleaguered government of Iraq block an advancing army of al-Qaida-style jihadis, but he insisted that the Iraqis create a political deal between the country’s three bitterly divided communities.
U.S. officials are reportedly pressuring Iraq’s prime minister to resign to make way for a coalition government.
“It is not the place for the U.S. to choose Iraq’s leader, but it is clear that only leaders that govern with an inclusive agenda can bring Iraq’s people together,” Obama said. “Right now that doesn’t exist, there’s too much suspicion and mistrust.”
The country has just held a national election that could help produce a government, he said. “But they don’t have a lot of time,” he added.
Secretary of State John Kerry will fly to the region to help craft a regional deal, he said.
But Obama said he would 300 advisors to help the government rally and direct its damaged forces, and that he would increase U.S. air surveillance of the fast-moving jihadi forces.
The surveillance could allow later bomb strikes, he suggested. “We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine the situation on the ground requires it,” Obama stated, apparently tying any greater U.S air to a political compromise.
So far, Prime Minister Nouri al-Malik has declined to resign amid an offensive by jihadis who have killed thousands of people from Maliki’s community of Shia Arabs.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many of Maliki’s Shia friends were murdered by the Sunni secret police working for Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.
Even if Maliki is willing to resign, Iraqi legislators may not be able to craft an effective, power-sharing deal.
That’s because the three communities — Arab Shia Muslims, Arab Sunni Muslims, and Kurds — have been killing each other for decades to decide who is in charge of all or parts of Iraq and its oil wealth.
The Sunni’s leaders want nearly complete control of the country, while the Shias — who are a majority of the population — are willing to grant the Sunnis a disproportional share of the country’s oil wealth.
The Sunnis hope to regain power with the help of the invading jihadis and nearby Sunni-run countries, such as Saudi Arabia.
The Shia community is already being aided by is next-door Iran, which is a Shia theocracy.
Iraq’s ethnic Kurdish community is lying low in northern Iraq, and is waiting to see how the Sunni vs. Shia war develops. Last week, Kurdish forces grabbed control of an northern city that is home to many Kurds, Kirkuk, and its surrounding oil fields.
If no power-sharing deal is approved, the Iraq war may escalate into a region-wide war between Sunni governments and the allied pair of the Iraqi and Iranian governments.
Obama’s decision is a partial reversal of the administration’s hands-off policy towards Iraq, from which Obama withdrew all U.S. forces in 2010.
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 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 marketplace bomb 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 in a so-called “dirty war.”
Obama pulled all U.S. forces out of the country by the end of 2010, after saying that he could not negotiate a status-of-forces 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 political appointees.
This month, 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.