BAGHDAD (AP) — A series of political spats in Baghdad over the past week surrounding foreign forces on Iraqi soil have exposed the increasing weakness of Iraq’s prime minister and a disconnect between Washington and Baghdad in the fight against the Islamic State group.
As Iraq struggles to push IS out of the vast areas still under the extremists’ control, it has been caught in a tug-of-war between Iran, which exerts great influence over the Shiite-led government and provides crucial support to its ground forces, and the U.S.-led coalition, which is providing vital air support.
As Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has struggled to please both sides, he has come to be seen by many as weak and indecisive, further undermining efforts to defeat the extremists. The challenge he faces was thrown into sharp relief by two recent controversies over foreign forces.
Exaggerated media reports in recent days of Turkish troops deploying to a base near the Islamic State-held city of Mosul sparked outrage in Baghdad. Despite Turkey’s insistence that the troops were part of a training mission coordinated with top Iraqi officials, al-Abadi said late Sunday that if Turkey did not withdraw its troops within 48 hours Iraq would bring the matter to the U.N. Security Council.
A few hundred Turkish troops have been present in Iraq for months, working to train Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Sunni militiamen. Their presence, while not publicly advertised, appears to have been done in coordination with both Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq.
The uproar may have been driven in part by Iran, which is at loggerheads with Turkey over Syria’s civil war. Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey is a leading supporter of the rebels fighting to overthrow him, which both Iran and Syria view as “terrorists.”
A similar dynamic was on display when U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently said the U.S. military would deploy a new special operations force to Iraq, only to have the proposal shot down by al-Abadi.
“Iraq does not need foreign ground forces and the Iraqi government is committed not to allow the presence of any ground force on Iraqi land,” the prime minister said in a statement.
Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization, one of Iraq’s most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias, went a step further, saying any U.S. base in Iraq would be considered a “target.”
There are already some 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq on a training and support mission to help Iraqi forces battle the IS group. Al-Abadi’s spokesman later walked back the prime minister’s comments, saying the government had requested more overflights, weapons and equipment.
“There will be special forces on board the aircraft,” the spokesman, Saad al-Hadithi, told The Associated Press. “The matter was discussed with top Iraqi leaders and they approved these forces.”
In addition to mediating between Washington and Tehran, al-Abadi must also bridge Iraq’s internal divides if the Shiite-led government is to retake Sunni-majority areas held by the IS group. Greater U.S. involvement might reassure Sunnis, many of whom trust Washington more than Tehran, but could at the same time alienate al-Abadi’s core Shiite constituency.
Al-Abadi had an opportunity to expand that constituency when he rolled out a package of domestic reforms earlier this year in response to mass protests against corruption and the government’s failure to provide basic services like electricity. But proposed salary cuts alienated much of Iraq’s dwindling middle class, which had led the protests.
“I think now he’s missed the boat,” said Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, a Shiite lawmaker and a former member of al-Abadi’s Dawa party.
“He was never a strong guy. By nature he dithers and is reluctant, but I honestly believe he missed his opportunity,” he said.
Al-Amiri, the Shiite militia commander, says al-Abadi is a weak leader, but he doesn’t think anyone else would have a “magic wand that can change the situation.”
Few believe al-Abadi is in danger of losing his job. Experts say Iraq’s fractured political elite likely prefers a weak leader who won’t upset the status quo.
“They want a weak prime minister who’s not able to challenge the parties and unable to challenge the corrupt,” said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at the Iraqi Institute for Economic Reform. “Everyone is working for their own gain, even members of his own party.”
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.