US Sen. Carl Levin said an assessment of the capabilities of the Iraqi Army is the first step the US must take before deciding on additional actions. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — For the United States, it would be the worst-case scenario: Iraq’s ethnic groups are unable — or unwilling — to form a unity government, and the country’s military is deemed irreparable.
Yet, a senior US senator tells CongressWatch most officials are “excluding” that possible outcome. Experts, however, suggest it could happen.
Senior US military officials have deployed what they are calling “assessment teams” to Iraq to provide President Barack Obama and his top aides with a better picture of the situation.
Administration officials and lawmakers are waiting for those six teams to report back on the state of the largely disbanded Iraqi military, and what it might take to rebuild it.
White House officials, lawmakers and experts say two things are necessary to beat back gains made by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a violent Sunni group that has captured towns and territory in western and northern Iraq in recent weeks.
One is an Iraqi military capable of defeating ISIL’s troops, which are experienced and battle-hardened after years of combat in Iraq against US forces and in Syria’s civil war.
Another is a new political arrangement that tilts less toward embattled Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki and his Shia sect, and encompasses the country’s other major ethnic groups: Sunnis and Kurds.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., was asked Tuesday by reporters if he worries that the US, which already has upped its deployment of combat forces from 300 to nearly 780, is on its way to a much larger military footprint in Iraq.
Levin did not directly address the issue, saying he first wants to review the coming Pentagon assessment of the Iraqi military.
“I think what needs to happen right now is they need to complete that assessment of the capability of the Iraqi Army,” Levin said.
The US military assessment also must measure “whether the Iraqi military is coming together against a common enemy.
“What we do with [ISIL] needs to wait until the assessment is made … of whether or not the Iraqi Army is capable of stopping [ISIL].”
What should happen next if the assessment concludes indigenous forces cannot be rebuilt to a level capable of defeating ISIL or pushing it beyond Iraq’s borders?
“Well, there’s another half: Whether or not the political leaders in Iraq are able to come together to broaden their base, and to do what that government has not yet done: Involve the Sunnis a lot more and unify the country politically,” Levin said.
CongressWatch asked Levin what if the US review concludes the Iraqi military is not up to the job and there is no likelihood of a political arrangement that includes Sunnis, Shia and Kurds.
“I think,” he replied while entering an elevator, “everyone is excluding that possibility.”
Yet, a truly inclusive government in Iraq is no sure thing.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Marwan Muasher warned this week that building that kind of government and society in Iraq “will be painful and slow moving.”
“The situation in Iraq may get worse before it gets better, but in the end, exclusionist policies will never produce a functioning society,” Muasher has written.
Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution and Edward Joseph of Johns Hopkins University have gone so far as to propose breaking Iraq into three autonomous regions, one for each ethnic group. Their proposal suggests an inclusive central government cannot be accomplished.
The duo wrote in a recent op-ed that while it “would be difficult to accomplish, federalism could still be a helpful element.
“The fundamental US and European goal in Iraq now is neither an intact Iraq nor a partitioned one. We can live with either outcome,” O’Hanlon and Joseph wrote. “The important objective is the defeat of [ISIL].”
Then there’s the Iraqi Army, which numerous times during ISIL’s June advance threw down their weapons and went home.
A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report summarized the Iraqi military in less-than-inspiring terms.
“The Iraqi army continues to lack adequate logistical and intelligence capabilities,” according to the report, authored by Anthony Cordesman and Sam Khazai. “It suffers from political interference in command positions, the sale of other positions at every level and other forms of corruption, a failure to maintain the facilities and systems transferred by the US, and a host of other issues.”