Paul Rogers: Obama facing dilemma over Iraq’s Islamist crisis

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US strike aircraft were in action over Iraq in August 1990. Then it was against the army of Saddam Hussein after it had invaded Kuwait. Twenty-four years later, and 11 years after the United States led a coalition to terminate that regime, US warplanes are again in action against the paramilitary forces of the Islamic State (IS).

The progress of this force of extreme Islamists has caught most western nations by surprise, and led to the last week’s White House decision to use the US Navy for air attacks on IS units approaching the Kurdish city of Irbil in north-east Iraq, using carrier-based F/A-18 strike aircraft.

By coincidence, those planes are being launched from the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS George H W Bush, named after the president in the White House back in 1990 and the father of the president who ordered the occupation of Iraq in 2003.

What is the Islamic State? It is certainly an extreme group and is prepared to use terror tactics to increase its control over territory and people. It developed two years ago, partly in Syria and partly in Iraq, where its predecessors were al-Qaida in Mesopotamia (AQIM), a group that went into decline at the time of the US military surge that preceded the American withdrawal in 2011.

At that time IS, then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), had some allegiance to what was left of al-Qaida in Pakistan but has since been disowned by the movement.

It has gathered strength in the past two years, but even more so in the past four months against the Assad regime in Syria and the Malaki government in Iraq. It now controls territory across both countries that is almost the size of Britain, including oil fields, hydroelectric plants and rich farmland.

While its progress has frequently been ruthless, there is much more to its success than this.

One change has been in its leadership, with the takeover of the group by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who took power in April last year and declared himself Caliph of the Islamic State just two months ago.

Baghdadi is a 43-year-old Iraqi-born cleric who has provided determined and powerful leadership that has helped IS become the dominant rebel group against the Assad regime in Syria.

Incrementally, this has meant that other rebel groups have either begun to co-ordinate their actions or even accept IS leadership, a remarkable change given that there was much inter-group fighting only a few months ago.

IS has also been helped by financial aid from wealthy private backers in the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, anxious to see the Assad regime fall and therefore limit the influence of Shi’a Iran, long the perceived enemy of largely Sunni Saudi Arabia. They also oppose the Iran-supported government of Nouri al-Malaki in Baghdad.

Within Iraq itself ,the Islamic State’s recent rapid progress has much to do with two other factors. Back in 2003, and after the rapid termination of the Saddam Hussein regime, one of the early decisions of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad was to disband the old Iraqi Army. This was one of the factors leading to the eight-year long rebellion, but in recent years the new government of Iraq has lent hugely on US military personnel to train a new army.

The Americans have contributed billions of dollars to train and equip the army, yet when faced with determined IS paramilitaries approaching the northern city of Mosul in June, it simply collapsed.

Part of the reason were serious failings in training and organisation, and there will be much in the way of inquests in the Pentagon to try and understand this, but much more of the responsibility falls on the highly divisive Malaki government which has sought persistently to favour Iraq’s Shi’a Muslim majority over the Sunnis.

So as IS has progressed across the north of the country, it has linked with aggrieved Sunni groups bitterly opposed to Malaki – some of these groups being made up of Iraqi soldiers from Saddam’s army disbanded 11 years ago.

Perhaps the most remarkable development has been that the rapid Islamist advance has enabled them to over-run Iraqi Army bases, capturing huge quantities of arms and ammunition supplied by the United States. Indeed one of the ironies of the last three days is that US warplanes attacking Islamic State units near Irbil are almost certainly destroying American-made guns.

There is little chance of the United States and other countries limiting the power of the Islamic State unless the government in Baghdad becomes very much more inclusive, but there is little sign of this.

This leaves President Barack Obama with a dilemma. If he moves more strongly against IS, then this may be what it wants, with its propagandists presenting this as a new assault on Islam by the hated “far enemy”.

If he doesn’t, then an extreme movement – possibly more dangerous even than al-Qaida – will take root in the heart of the Middle East.

Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford.