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Why the US has been so reluctant to intervene in Iraq

Several key factors have aligned in recent days, pushing Obama to at last intervene in Iraq

Since the outbreak of the latest crisis in June 2014 - when the Islamic State (IS) launched a major offensive and seized control of a large swath of territory - the Obama administration has been very reluctant to embroil itself in Iraq’s internal problems.

There are four main reasons why the US has not taken action against IS until now that need to be considered.

Domestic troubles

The first and most obvious relates to US domestic politics. Speaking to US soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in December 2011, President Obama announced the official end of the Iraq War.

After nine years of conflict, Iraq appeared to have stabilised and its democratically elected government, under the helm of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, was in firm control.

“Now, Iraq is not a perfect place,” President Obama acknowledged. “It has many challenges ahead. But we're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” Going further, President Obama declared, “Iraq’s future will be in the hands of its people. America's war in Iraq will be over.” In retrospect, this could not have been further from the reality.

The immense cost of the Iraq War, in both blood and treasure, has presented itself as a major obstacle to American involvement in Iraq today.

Indeed, the drawing down the Iraq War was one of President Obama’s few political victories. It is therefore easy to see why the reintroduction of US forces into Iraq two and a half years later would not be politically expedient.

Worse, any move involving US forces is certain to open Obama’s administration to challenges from America’s right, particularly Republican hawks, like senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have criticised the administration’s decision to not leave behind a residual US force in 2011.

The Maliki problem

The second reason why the Obama administration has proven so reluctant to support Iraq, stems from Nuri al-Maliki’s refusal to step down as prime minister.

When the crisis began in June, the White House made it clear that sending American troops back into Iraq to save the Maliki’s government was a nonstarter. After all, since the US withdrawal, Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies have been a great cause for concern.

Part of the problem is that Maliki’s State of Law coalition won the most seats in April’s parliamentary elections. This is challenging, because Maliki believes that he now has a mandate to continue ruling Iraq with his divisive, sectarian policies. However, there is a growing consensus that Maliki needs to step down.

Indeed, even the Iranians are abandoning Maliki. According to a report in a Lebanese newspaper, The Daily Star, “Iran believes [Maliki] is no longer able to hold his country together and is looking for an alternative leader to combat a Sunni Islamist insurgency.” This is a major development, as the Iranians have long been viewed as Maliki’s patron.

This is how the Americans see this. According to a report published on August 7 in the New York Times, White House and Pentagon officials have indicated privately that it “would not intervene militarily until Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki stepped down.” Clearly, Maliki’s refusal to step down the main reason for the American delay in intervening

It is clear that the humanitarian crisis in Sinjar and the close proximity of IS forces to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)’s capital, Erbil, has forced the White House into finally taking action today.


In the early morning hours of 3 August 3, IS launched an all-out offensive on the Yazidi-populated city of Sinjar. The Yazidis are adherents of an ancient, 6,000-year-old religion, which worships a deity called ‘Melek Taus’, a fallen angel, who, according to Yazidi mythology, led a rebellion in heaven.

Because this clearly echoes the story of the Christian deity, Lucifer, who was cast into Hell by God, this religion has long been accused of worshipping the devil. In light of this and IS’s brand of Islam, the assault on Sinjar and the resulting massacres suggest that the Yazidis have been targeted for extermination. This constitutes an act of genocide.

The assault on Sinjar and two other Yazidi towns surrounding Mount Sinjar, a large plateaued mountain in northeastern Iraq, led to nearly 200,000 Yazidis to flee the area. According to a map published by the UN mission to Iraq, most fled northwest to the safety of the KRG. However, between 10,000 and 40,000 were trapped and had no choice but to climb the steep slopes of the mountain above.

Surrounded by IS on all sides, and without water, food, or shelter in the blazing 40-degree heat, a pressing humanitarian crisis quickly developed.

Further IS advances

The fourth reason why the US is acting now, concerns IS’s continued gains. On 6 August, the group pushed back the Kurdish military, the Peshmerga or “those who face death,” in two major battles to the southwest of the KRG capital, Erbil, causing widespread panic.

According to Kurdish television reports, IS managed to capture two towns near the border of the KRG: Mahmour, located halfway between Mosul and Kirkuk, and Quwair, which is just more than 30 kilometers southwest of Erbil. The Peshmerga regrouped and have since recaptured at Mahmour, although Quwair remains in IS hands and the militant group continues to prove that it is not just a flash in the pan.

In the end, it is clear that the Obama administration’s deep reluctance to reintroduce US forces into Iraq is a byproduct of both domestic concerns and a response to Maliki’s refusal to step down as Prime Minister. However, the humanitarian crisis in Sinjar and the IS advance toward the Kurdish capital have forced the White House’s hand and are pushing it to act, sooner than it would have liked.

With these four factors all unfolding at once, on 7 August President Obama took the decision to order aerial support. He is now hoping that from a military perspective US strikes against IS will help defend the Kurdish capital, while from a humanitarian angle he hopes that the air dropping of humanitarian supplies to the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, will avert a full-blown human tragedy.  

 - Bryan R Gibson recently completed a PhD in International History at the London School of Economics and is the author of Covert Relationship: American Foreign Policy, Intelligence and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988 (Praeger, 2010). He can be found tweeting @bry_gibson. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo credit: Obama has authorized the use of a limited military and humanitarian campaign (AFP) 

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