One can hardly be blamed for finding the Iraq crisis perplexing when even its main participants seem to be confused. Contradictory statements and actions have been the hallmark of US, Iranian, and Iraqi policy since the lightning advance of Sunni militants began earlier this month. The word “policy” may be too generous, given that decision-makers seem to be making things up as they go along, struggling to keep up with developments, and to make sense of them.
The US has sent out mixed signals from the outset about what – if any – military action it would take.
“I don’t rule out anything,” US President Barack Obama said when the crisis erupted, adding that he was looking at “all options”. This sounded non-committal, until during the same speech, he said that there would be “short-term immediate things that need to be done militarily”.
The following day, Obama seemed to backtrack, saying that the US “is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they are prepared to work together”. The message seemed clear: no Iraqi plan, no US military action; except that, later in the same speech he said: “What we’re going to have to do is combine selective actions by our military.”
Between the start and end of his statement, Iraqis had not come up with a plan to work together. Nor had they done so six days later, when Obama said that the US was “prepared to take targeted and precise military action”. His statement was echoed by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said: “It is in our national security interest to counter” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) “wherever we find them”.
From the air or otherwise?
That same day, when Obama said: “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq”, US military officials confirmed that F-18 fighter planes were already flying over the country. The following day, Obama announced the dispatch of 300 special operations forces to Iraq, which has promised them immunity from prosecution. One wonders why immunity is necessary if they are to have no combat role.
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The day after, he acknowledged that “no amount of American firepower” would “hold the country together”. US Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to differ, saying that air strikes “may well be one of the options … When you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that … from the air or otherwise.”
So much for Americans not returning to combat in Iraq. Days later, the issue came full circle with Kerry reiterating that “nothing is off the table”, and that “all options” were still available to Obama.
As if there were not already enough confusion about military action, General David Petraeus, who led the US troop surge in Iraq under George W Bush, waded in for good measure. The day after saying that the US “cannot be… the air force for Shia militias, or a Shia on Sunni Arab fight,” he expressed support for “targeted” attacks against an emerging “terrorist army” in Iraq. The “growing threat” posed by ISIL “means that military action will be necessary”.
Petraeus seemed to have quickly forgotten the conditions he had previously said were necessary for US support: “A government of all the people” that “is representative of, and responsive to, all elements of Iraq”, as well as “a government against extremists, rather than one side of what could be a sectarian civil war”.
Iraq’s government meets none of these criteria, but given these contradictory statements, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may feel little incentive to fulfil them. After all, a White House statement at the start of the crisis that US support “will increase”, was echoed on June 23 by Kerry, who promised “intense and sustained” support.
Conciliation and defiance
Maliki’s response to the militant Sunni advances has been iron-fisted and contradictory. A week after offering to arm citizens willing to fight, he forbade non-state actors from carrying weapons. Despite a call for national unity, he rejects a national unity government, and has cracked down on opposition media.
Maliki has displayed a stubborn desire for a divisive military solution to a political problem, and a fanning of the sectarian tensions he says he wants to alleviate. He has asked for US air support, vowed to teach militants a “lesson”, and is being bolstered by Shia militias and Iranian troops.
Maliki is not the only Iraqi leader to flip-flop between conciliation and defiance. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s highest Shia authority, called for “a new effective government that has broad national support, avoiding past mistakes and opening new horizons towards a better future for all Iraqis”.
However, this call is seriously undermined by his call days earlier for his followers to join the security forces. Sistani later clarified that he was appealing to all Iraqis, but not before thousands of Shia Muslims had reportedly already answered his call, bolstering the ranks of an army that has long been viewed by many Iraqi Sunnis as a brutal sectarian force.
Maliki’s ally, Iran, has also been busy muddying the waters.
“Iran has never dispatched any forces to Iraq and it is very unlikely it will ever happen,” said President Hassan Rouhani. That same day, however, it was reported that Tehran had sent 2,000 advance troops to its neighbour, as well as the head of its elite Quds Force. Iranian troops have reportedly fought alongside the Iraqi army.
Days later, Rouhani vowed that “the big Iranian nation will not hesitate to protect holy shrines” in Iraq. How this would be possible without having “dispatched any forces” is a mystery.
Obfuscation and backtracking
Both Tehran and Washington are guilty of obfuscation and backtracking with regards to cooperation over Iraq. A day after a senior Iranian official said “we can work with Americans to end the insurgency”, Rouhani conditioned this on Washington confronting “terrorist groups in Iraq and elsewhere”. This prospect seemed more remote days later, when a senior Iranian official said military cooperation “is not an option”.
That same day, Iran warned against “any foreign military intervention in Iraq”, after the US said it was deploying a warship in the Gulf (apparently Iran does not consider its own troops in Iraq as “foreign military intervention”).
A week later, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei unequivocally buried the idea of cooperation.
“We are strongly opposed to US and other intervention in Iraq,” he said. “The US is seeking an Iraq under its hegemony and ruled by its stooges.”
This is in stark contrast to previous Iranian criticism of US inaction. Hossein Amir Abdollahian, deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, has said that the US “delay” in taking on ISIL showed that “the White House lacks serious will in fighting terrorism in Iraq and the region”.
Washington fared little better on the issue of cooperation. Asked if the US could cooperate with Tehran, Kerry replied: “I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive.”
That same day, however, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said there were “no plans to have consultations with Iran about military activities in Iraq”.
Confusingly, Kirby added: “It is not without precedent that we talk with Iran about security issues in the region.” A few days later, Kerry said Washington was “interested in communicating with Iran”, but that working hand-in-hand was “not on the table”.
US, Iranian, and Iraqi officials have been woefully unclear and inconsistent regarding the crisis and their roles in it. This makes it extremely difficult to formulate coherent policies, which will hinder the possibility of resolving the conflict, to the grave detriment of all Iraqis.
Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.