A U.S. military spokesman for the anti-Islamic State coalition in Iraq, Col. Steve Warren, announced Tuesday that the Iraqi army is ready to retake the city of Ramadi. According to information leaked to reporters, Iraqi forces have moved to about 14 kilometers (9 miles) from the city's outskirts and an assault against Islamic State positions is likely imminent. Washington is reportedly pushing for the Iraqis to retake the city as quickly as possible. Baghdad and Washington are both in need of a victory against the Islamic State; Washington needs to demonstrate success in the face of growing Russian involvement in the Middle East, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government is beleaguered by a growing protest movement, budget shortfalls and disintegrating ties between Iraq's Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations.
Sixteen months after Mosul fell to the Islamic State, Iraq remains in a precarious position. Declining oil prices have removed Baghdad's most salient tool — petrodollars — for dealing with competing minority demands. Despite their own oil reserves, the Kurds have been unable to reverse the economic decline that played a part in sending their political climate into disarray.
Baghdad has struggled to regain control of Ramadi since the Islamic State advanced in May 2014, and the group's position in Anbar province has both created and exacerbated tension between Iraq's Sunni Arabs and Baghdad. Sunni Arab tribes have long pushed for formal inclusion in the Iraqi military through the creation of a national guard — something Baghdad has traditionally rejected, often at the behest of Shiite militias and their patrons in Iran. Without greater Sunni Arab participation in the fight against the Islamic State, the Iraqi side of the campaign has largely stalled in recent months; Iranian-backed Shiite elements and the remnants of the Iraqi military have found it difficult to push northward past Salahuddin province. The Islamic State's Iraqi stronghold of Mosul, dangerously close to the southern boundaries of Iraq's oil-rich Kurdish region, has thus remained beyond Iraqi forces' reach.
The Kurdish peshmerga, many armed and trained by the United States, have been largely successful in managing their border against Islamic State incursions. However, like Iraq's Sunni Arabs, the peshmerga are uneasy about working with Baghdad. Security concerns, mounting debts and financial shortfalls are taking their toll on Arbil, where a longstanding debate over extending Kurdish President Massoud Barzani's term has devolved into an imbroglio involving the ousting of the reform-minded Gorran coalition from the government. Barzani faces stiff opposition from the Kurdistan Democratic Party's political rivals. Though he is attempting to break out of the impasse by kicking Gorran out of the government and hoping to strike a bargain with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdistan Islamic Union, the move is likely to backfire and create even more room for Iran, which has tight links with Gorran, to push back against Barzani and, by extension, Turkey.
Iraq's Shiites are also experiencing internal conflict, including an anti-corruption movement that began in August holding weekly protests to demand reform in Baghdad. Shiite political forces of all stripes are poised to expand their influence in the Iraqi capital as al-Abadi struggles to accommodate competing sectarian and ethnic interests as well as Russian, Iranian, Turkish and Gulf Arab machinations. The Iraqi government announced Oct. 11 that it was sacking plans to issue a debt tender for $6 billion to $7 billion because of excessively high interest payments that Baghdad would be unable to afford. In recent weeks, rumors have emerged of Gulf Arab or even U.S. loans to Baghdad in addition to emergency funding the International Monetary Fund provided earlier in the year.
The Iraqi government is in need of a victory, but if previous offensives against Islamist State positions are any indication, the Iraqi army and allied Shiite militias do not have an easy task ahead of them. U.S. pressure on Iraq to press ahead on Ramadi might indicate increased U.S. air and logistical support for the Iraqi army, especially since Washington is re-evaluating its Iraq and anti-Islamic State strategies as Russia lends support to the Syrian government. The United States is also preparing to deliver the second half of a long-delayed shipment of F-16 fighter aircraft to Baghdad as part of Washington's attempts to maintain its own influence in Iraq. The U.S. push for Iraqi troops to retake Ramadi certainly highlights the larger struggle in Iraq and the region as each country attempts to use Iraq's current struggles for its own ambitions. As Tehran works to maintain its patron-client relationship with Baghdad, both Turkey and the Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, are looking to strengthen ties with Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni Arab populations.
Both Washington and Baghdad will tout a victory against the Islamic State in Ramadi, but the battle's overall impact for Iraq will be minimal. Lower oil prices will persist and challenge the Iraqi economy. Moreover, pushing out jihadist fighters into the western Iraqi deserts or sympathetic tribal communities will not mend the ethnic and sectarian rifts that have plagued the country for generations. Iraq's continued weakness and internal divisions will not only complicate anti-Islamic State operations but also will intensify the regional competition among Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.