WASHINGTON // The sweep by militants through northern Iraq and the collapse of the Iraqi army threaten to undo whatever was accomplished after the US invaded the country and ousted dictator Saddam Hussein 11 years ago.
The region now faces the creation of a de facto militant Sunni state along the Syrian-Iraqi border that could serve as a safe haven and training zone for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a group with a declared interest in attacking the West.
For the US president Barack Obama, who’s built his foreign policy legacy on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the militants’ swift victories raise questions about his 2011 decision to withdraw all US troops from Iraq and his reluctance to help arm moderate Syrian rebels fighting Sunni extremists in that country.
“Now, in the middle of the Middle East, we have a big, gaping hole where the Iraqi-Syrian border has broken down,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s a threat to the regional security architecture, the boundaries of the region we’re invested in, and a threat to a lot of the assets we’ve built up inside Iraq.”
The US has not responded so far to a request last month from the Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki to mount air attacks against militant training camps in western Iraq, according to two US officials.
One of the officials said Mr Obama is reluctant to revisit a war that he opposed and repeatedly has declared over.
The administration is weighing options including drone strikes and expedited equipment and training for the Iraqi military, according to a White House official.
The US should determine how it “can effectively help in stabilising the present situation” because “we spent a lot of very precious lives to try to stabilise Iraq, give them the opportunity for democracy,” Steny Hoyer, a member of the House of Representatives, said yesterday.
ISIL has long held areas in Anbar province to Baghdad’s west. It seized oil-rich areas north of the capital, including Tikrit and parts of Kirkuk province, after taking Mosul.
Those changes are probably “semi-permanent”, said Michael Knights, a fellow with the Washington Institute.
ISIL can be expected to “consolidate their hold on huge swathes of Iraq, cutting the country into three pieces” along ethnic and geographic lines.
“This is not an out-of-the-blue development,” said Mr Knights. “It’s the culmination of many trends, warning signs ignored, enlightened paths not taken by the Iraqi government. This is a game-changing moment in the country’s security.”
Mr Knights and other analysts said the return of Sunni extremism and the collapse of the Iraqi military are traceable in part to a series of American and Iraqi policy blunders over the years.
After the decision to invade Iraq, the first mistake, said a former Bush administration official, was the May 16, 2003, US edict purging all members of the Saddam’s Baath party from the military and security services – a move that to the puzzlement of some officials exceeded US president George W Bush’s order to de-Baathify the military only down to the rank of battalion commander.
The second blunder cited is Mr Al Maliki’s use of his government and the military as a tool to enforce Shiite rule after years of Saddam’s minority Sunni oppression.
The result now, said a US intelligence official, is that it is hardly surprising to find Sunni soldiers unwilling to fight others of their religion, no matter how extreme, on behalf of a Shiite government.
The former Bush administration official flagged another issue: Mr Obama had little choice but to withdraw the last American forces by the end of 2011, when an agreement could not be reached granting them immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
Their departure undid both the gains made rebuilding Iraqi security and the progress that the “surge” of US forces in Anbar and other Sunni provinces made towards marginalising Sunni extremists.
“We shouldn’t have walked away from Iraq,” said Ken Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy group, pointing to the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw all troops.
“This is nothing 10,000 or 20,000 troops couldn’t have fixed,” Mr Pollack said.
The speed and extent of the ISIL offensive and the disintegration of Iraqi forces, who left almost all their weaponry and equipment for ISIL to collect, has caught the Obama administration off guard, said two US intelligence officials.
So far, the officials said they have seen no evidence that the militants have picked up Hellfire anti-armour missiles or other weapons.
There is some evidence, they said, that ISIL is delivering some captured weapons, including machine guns, rifles and vehicles, to its fellow militants in Syria.
Asked about reports that ISIL has captured tanks and ammunition, the State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US is “trying to obtain confirmation on what assets ISIL may have obtained on the ground.”
The situation on the ground, she said, “is very murky”.