Within hours of the Obama Administration announcing the deployment of a few hundred special-forces troops to Iraq for missions against ISIS, Iran-backed Shiite militias declared they would stop fighting the Islamic State and begin targeting the American troops.
A story at the Washington Post suggests U.S. forces might have a rocky relationship with a broad swath of the northern Iraqi populace, because a disturbing number of them believe the United States secretly supports ISIS. As the report notes, this belief is “widespread across the country’s Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide.”
The Post reports this conspiracy theory is “widely believed” among Iraqis, for “a variety of pernicious reasons that have to do with asserting U.S. control over Iraq, the wider Middle East and, perhaps, its oil.”
Some specific reasons for this belief are cited, particularly videos that supposedly show American helicopters dropping weapons to ISIS militants, and a video hosted by a prominent lawmaker who shows off a stash of U.S. military rations supposedly seized from an Islamic State base.
There also seems to be a general sense that the Islamic State could not be holding out so well against U.S. efforts unless the fix was in.
Even Iraqi government officials who push back against the “America supports ISIS” meme are quoted complaining that the weak response from the Obama Administration makes their task more difficult. “It’s because America is so slow that most people believe they are supporting Daesh,” an Iraqi Ministry of Defense spokesman sighed.
Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Center rendered a similar judgment:
Mosul was lost and the Americans did nothing. Syria was lost and the Americans did nothing. Paris is attacked and the Americans aren’t doing much. So people believe this is a deliberate policy. They can’t believe the American leadership fails to understand the developments in the region, and so the only other explanation is that this is part of a conspiracy.
One Shiite militia commander said the Islamic state was “weak” and “almost finished,” asserting that his forces could defeat them quickly “if only America would stop supporting them.” This commander has a friend who claims to have seen American helicopters dropping off bottled water to ISIS fighters.
Noting that U.S.-ISIS conspiracy theories are floated with particular enthusiasm by Shiite politicians, and persistently promoted through social media, the WaPo theorizes they could be one element of “a deliberate campaign on the part Iran’s allies in Iraq to erode American influence.” U.S. military spokesman Col. Steve Warren bluntly describes it as Iranian propaganda.
Iran is making real progress at pushing for control of Iraq through those Shiite militias, whose prestige has been enhanced by their battlefield success against the Islamic State.
It is noteworthy that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promptly waved off the Obama Administration’s offer of more special forces troops, perhaps because he fears the political cost of accepting the assistance would outweigh the battlefield benefits of another half-hearted Obama initiative. It is not hard to imagine Iran’s proxies arranging a few unfortunate events they could exploit for political gain after such a small U.S. deployment, but if the Administration relents and cancels the plan, that pernicious “America is helping ISIS” myth will grow stronger.