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State of Emergency in Iraq: Will the next U.S. Administration be prepared?

Asha Castleberry is a U.S. National Security Expert and U.S. Army Veteran.  She is an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project (ASP) and a member of the Truman National Security Project Defense Council. She tweets at @ashacastleberry.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, nongovernmental, nonpartisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

What is going on in Iraq?  The Iraqi government has declared a state of emergency and political turmoil in Iraq is on the rise, as seen from the recent meltdown in Baghdad. The political deadlock seen in the Iraqi parliament has ignited massive protests within the Green Zone, spearheaded by the Shia opposition groups led by Iraqi Shia Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. He has has launched a de-facto coup, attacking the political legitimacy of the Shia-led Baghdad government. He has done so by demanding Prime Minister Haider to present the new list of technocrat cabinet members.  In addition, the Iraqi government has deployed security forces, in conjunction with Shia militias, to further bolster security in Southern Baghdad.

Political instability in Baghdad poses a direct threat towards the current mission against ISIS and Iraqi national reconstruction.  During Vice President Biden’s recent trip to Baghdad, he underscored that political chaos there would negatively impact current operations in the war against ISIS.  ISIS will then take advantage of this opportunity to exacerbate sectarian tensions by targeting Shia communities, especially during the Shia pilgrimage.  The recent attacks in the Nahrwan area prove this point. ISIS has also claimed attacks against Shia communities in Imam Ali-Husseiniyah in Southern Baghdad. They will also step up more attacks during the commemoration of Imam al-Kadhim, a major Shia holiday.  The timing is just perfect for ISIS, as this has occurred right after another major, violent sectarian incident in Iraq.  The recent clashes between the Peshmerga Forces and al-Hashad al-Turkmani militias in Tuz Khurmatu, Salahuddin Province has shown the country’s inability to successfully prevent such sectarian violence.

Despite political turmoil and ongoing sectarian strife, the Anti-ISIS coalition has made considerable progress during the month of April.  The Iraqi security forces liberated the Hit District in Al-Anbar province and successfully completed clearing operations in key areas in Diyala Province.  According to a recent Institute of Study of the War (ISW) situation report,  the Peshmerga Forces along with Sunni Arab forces liberated key villages in the north of Mosul, with coalition airstrike support. In preparation for the Mosul counteroffensive, the U.S. has authorized an additional 217 troops to be deployed to Iraq and provide additional air assets.  Furthermore, the U.S. has issued a 30 day extension for the U.S. air carrier, USS Harry S. Truman in the Gulf Region to support President Obama’s acceleration of the fight against ISIS. The USS Harry S. Truman provides robust maritime security, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISRs), and counterterrorism capabilities.

Nevertheless, there has been no major economic impact resulting from the political climate in Baghdad.  The Iraqi Minister of Oil has confirmed that the political turmoil in Baghdad did not impact oil exports for the month of April. Indeed, Bloomberg has reported that oil exports reached a record high of 4.3 million barrels a day that month.  However, projections still forecast that it may drop, and the country will continue to struggle to be able to afford this expensive war against ISIS.

The current political instability in Iraq is reminding us just how critical it is for the next U.S. administration to prescribe a viable strategy in such a complex and volatile country.  The U.S. needs competent leadership, similar to the Obama Administration, that knows how to carry out a comprehensive forward plan.  Based on the recent Iraqi political crisis, the American people should be questioning presidential candidates about the U.S.’s future role in Iraq.  Here are some major questions that a U.S. presidential candidate should seriously consider.  First, are Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s political reforms promising to achieve an inclusive and decentralized government?  If not, what then, is the next course of action to help build political cohesion in Baghdad?  Second, the next U.S. administration will inherit a commitment of just over 4,000 U.S. servicemembers in Iraq, with the authorization to continue using airpower.  Therefore, will the next U.S. administration maintain the same number of boots on ground? Third, if the Iraqis are fortunate enough to win back Mosul and terminate ISIS presence there before the end of the year, will the next administration then assist with peacebuilding in a post-ISIS war? Fourth, will the next administration support a three-state solution for Iraq, or continue the policy of national reconciliation with our regional partners?

Moving forward, I believe that Secretary Hillary Clinton is the best U.S. presidential candidate to deliver the best policy strategy for our future role in Iraq.  Secretary Clinton could implement a well thought out position that supports a decisive political strategy in Iraq.  She will not be incoherent and inconsistent about her position. Secretary Clinton has already conveyed her strong understanding and knowledge about countering ISIS in Iraq.  A comprehensive strategy of support, by providing more airpower, as well as Training, Advising, and Assist (TAA) for the Iraqi Security Forces, Peshmerga Forces, and Sunni Tribal Groups.

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