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Few reasons to cheer victory over ISIS

The war on ISIS is mostly won - at the expense of Iraqi Sunnis and the Kurds

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on Dec 9 last year.

While there will still be some fighting, the real war is over.

Yet there were no parades, no statues pulled down. That is because in Washington, there is little to celebrate.

The next milestone for Iraq will be the elections expected to take place in May. What stands out is the conspicuous absence of American influence.

The two main election candidates are Mr Abadi and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both come from the Shi'ite Dawa party and have close ties to Iran.

Mr Abadi, a Shi'ite backed by a group close to Iran, said he is running as the head of a cross-sectarian bloc. He took over from Mr Maliki,blamed by Iraqi politicians for the army's failure to prevent ISIS seizing a third of the country.

Mr Maliki did not follow through on the George W. Bush-ordered "surge" in US troop numbers, leaving Sunnis at the mercy of his Shi'ite supporters.

His first act post-occupation was to try and arrest his Sunni vice-president. In 2014, he unleashed his army in the Sunni Anbar Province, which drew ISIS in to Iraq.

American manipulations replaced him with Mr Abadi.

He made few efforts to integrate Sunnis into the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi judiciary, military and police forces, the minimum needed for a united Iraq.

Mr Abadi created new fault lines by further embracing Teheran and sent about 120,000 Iranian-led Shi'ite militia tearing through Sunni heartlands.

The US had worked closely with Mr Abadi to destroy ISIS in Iraq - at the expense of Iraqi Sunnis. The strategy was medieval: Kill until there was no ISIS left, then allow Iranians and Shi'ite Iraqis to do what they pleased with the Sunnis afterwards.

KURDS

This was the takeaway from the Iraq war of 2003-2011: There would be no political follow up.

The walk-away policy was implemented to resolve, for now, the question of the Kurds.

Last year, the Kurds voted for independence from Iraq, only to see Washington stand aside as Shi'ite militia pushed Kurdish forces from disputed regions.

The Kurds had to salvage a bit of pre-2003 autonomy from Baghdad, where once full statehood stood within grasp.

With US support, the Kurds blunted ISIS in 2014. This year, they no longer seem to have a place in the US' foreign policy.

Unlike the 2003-2011 war, when the US spent US$60 billion (S$79 billion) on the task, it does not intend trying to pay for the reconstruction of Iraq.

Estimates suggest US$100 billion is needed to rebuild the mostly Sunni areas destroyed and to deal with the 2.78 million internally displaced Sunnis.

Shi'ite Baghdad pleads lack of funds to help. Washington has contributed only US$265 million for reconstruction since 2014. In comparison, the US allotted US$150 million last year to financing arms sales to Iraq.

US President Donald Trump is unlikely to pull troops out of Iraq entirely. A reduced force will stay to deal with any ISIS resurgence.Over 26 years, the US paid a high price - 4,500 Americans dead and trillions of taxpayer dollars - for what will have to pass as a conclusion.

Iran is creating a new Lebanon out of the shell of what was once Iraq. As long as the Trump administration insists on not opening diplomatic relations with Teheran, the US will have few ways to exert influence.

Nations in the Middle East will diversify international relations knowing this. If any of this does presage some future US conflict with an Iran that is "too powerful", we shall have witnessed a true ironic tragedy. - REUTERS

The writer served in the US State Department for 24 years.

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