Washington has promised to support the Iraqi government in its drive to defeat rapidly advancing ISIS militants. But experts say that more US weapons are unlikely to stabilize the situation.
Facing perhaps the greatest security challenge in Iraq since the US troop withdrawal in 2011, Washington has promised Baghdad additional assistance to beat back the advancing surprise offensive by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
After capturing Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, ISIS continued to push south on Wednesday. According to Iraqi security officials, the Islamist militants have seized control of the central city of Tikrit and attacked the outskirts of Samarra, which lies 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Baghdad.
The State Department said on Tuesday that the US "supports a strong, coordinated response to push back against this aggression." Washington is working closely with Iraq's central government and authorities in the autonomous Kurdistan Region, according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
"The United States will provide all appropriate assistance to the Government of Iraq under the Strategic Framework Agreement to help ensure that these efforts succeed," Psaki said.
According to Ben Connable, Iraq expert at the RAND Corporation, that assistance will likely include additional arms and intelligence. Earlier in the year, Washington sent weapons to help Baghdad retake the western city of Fallujah, which fell under ISIS control in January.
Those weapons included hellfire missiles and surveillance drones. Despite the additional firepower, the Iraqi government failed to wrest Fallujah from ISIS control, and Fallujah is much smaller than Mosul, which has a population of more than 1.4 million.
"Sending weapons and advisors is a long-term policy - that's something that requires many years of development, training and support to make an army or police force more effective," Connable told DW. "We don't have that kind of time anymore."
Post-American security vacuum
The US had originally planned to leave a residual force in Iraq that would have continued training the country's security forces. But Baghdad refused to grant legal immunity from Iraqi courts to US troops, a key condition for the Obama administration. As a consequence, Washington pulled out all of its forces from Iraq, leaving Baghdad to deal with the security situation largely on its own.
US Senator John McCain on Tuesday suggested that the White House's decision to withdraw all US troops from Iraq had contributed to the deteriorating security situation.
"There is no doubt that we could have left troops behind as we have in Korea, in Germany, in Bosnia," McCain told reporters. "We didn't and so now it is chaos, and so you will see greater and greater attacks and dissolving chaos in Iraq."
But according to Wayne White, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not want the US to have a continued presence in Iraq. White, who formerly served as the principal Iraq analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, said that Maliki was opposed to US efforts to co-opt once hostile Sunni tribes and use them to fight against al Qaeda, a development referred to as the Sunni Awakening.
"This prime minister has been on a narrow, sectarian Shiite agenda for a long time," White told DW. "He wanted the US out because he didn't want to have to fulfill promises that we extracted from him, finally in 2009, to take aboard these cadres from the Sunni Arab Awakening."
'Stop the bleeding'
Iraq's Sunnis have long accused the Shiite-dominated central government of using counterterrorism measures as a pretext to oppress their minority community. The country's highest-ranking Sunni politician, former Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, was forced to flee to Turkey after an Iraqi court sentenced him to death on a terrorism conviction in September 2012.
The following spring, Iraqi government troops fired on Sunni protesters in the northern city of Hawija, killing dozens of people. Baghdad claimed that gunmen were among the protesters and had shot dead an Iraqi soldier, sparking the bloody clash.
"Maliki and his cronies, a clutch of Shia leaders in government, don't trust the Sunni Arabs and therefore don't want them to have any role in their future Iraq and foolishly thought they could get away with that without push-back," White said.
According to Connable, this feeling of marginalization has pushed some Iraqi Sunnis to tacitly support ISIS, even if they don't agree with the militants' beliefs. The situation has been complicated by the civil war in neighboring Syria, which has provided ISIS with a staging ground to launch attacks in Iraq.
The expert at RAND said that although a long-term solution to the violence is not in sight, Washington must try to convince Baghdad of the seriousness of the situation and the need to address Sunni grievances.
"We can at least try to stabilize Iraq," Connable said. "Right now we're in a position to stop the bleeding at this point."