War, politics and humanitarian disasters give Iraq a perfect storm of crises

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. We keep hearing about the militant group ISIS in Iraq and how dangerous they've become, both to people in the Middle East and to us here at home. But does the group actually have the capacity to harm the US? We'll try to answer that question in a moment. Right now though, let's look at where things stand in Iraq. Today, the US gave Kurdish forces bigger and better weapons to fight ISIS and continue dropping food and water to refugees on the run from the Sunni militants. Meanwhile, a political power struggle rages in the capital between Nouri al-Maliki and the man charged with replacing him as prime minister. Matt Bradley is with the Wall Street Journal in Baghdad. He says Haider al-Abadi is seen as better suited to handling the crisis. Matt Bradley: He's probably the closest possible candidate they could pick to Nouri al-Maliki. He's been an ally for many years. Some of the people that I've spoken with, some of the political analysts were so afraid of alienating or upsetting Maliki that they chose someone who would basically represent almost no actual policy change. They really just couldn't stand Maliki's intransigence, his stubbornness, his tendency to micromanage. But we really don't have any clues as to whether or not Haider al-Abadi will be as divisive as Maliki. He's certainly thought to be more of a pragmatic, friendly, kinder character but being in public office, in a high level position like prime minister in Iraq could change all that. So we really have to wait and see whether or not Haider al-Abadi will be as stubborn. Werman: So you've got the political confusion in Baghdad and also you've got US forces launching airstrikes against ISIS militant positions. The Obama Administration also took one extra step and that's giving weapons to the Kurds fighting ISIS. Does this help Iraq become more self-sufficient in security or is it really more giving the Kurds extra muscle? Bradley: Well it's certainly a very dangerous step and a very sensitive step for the Obama Administration. Dealing with the Kurds is a good idea because first of all, in terms of proximity, they're some of the closest to the fight. The Kurdish Peshmerga are also the most effective fighting force in Iraq. So dealing with them and providing them with weapons is probably the best bet in terms of reclaiming some of the lost ground that the Islamic State has managed to take from Iraqi territory over the last months. At the same time, helping the Kurds to fight off the Islamic State, the president is undermining Iraqi unity on some level but he's also bringing Iraq a step closer towards defeating the Islamic State, so it's a very narrow approach for how the Obama Administration can deal with this. Werman: Part of the reason these airstrikes are happening is to kind of stave off a humanitarian disaster that's been brewing because refugees have been fleeing ISIS, along with religious minorities. They're pinned down in the mountains in the north of the country. The US, as well as Britain, have been dropping aid supplies. Is there a point when actual forces will have to go in? Bradley: Well, the Obama Administration has made it very clear that it's up to the Iraqi military to turn the tide of the Islamic State's advance into southern Iraq and that's Obama hewing to a commitment that he made when he was running for office all those years ago, that the United States would leave Iraq and it would never come back. It's not a very politically expedient move for President Obama to re-engage with boots on the ground in a crisis where we really don't have any friends. We were just talking about the Kurds - they're probably one of our closest partners in Iraq and they're some of the most reliable soldiers and some of the most reliable administrators and governors in this country. But at the same time, even dealing with them, even helping them, in a way, just undermines the stability and the unity of this country. So, it's a minefield here, literally and figuratively. Werman: Matt, as you just said, those airstrikes alone are a dangerous move by the White House. We're going to ask this question of our next guest but I want your take - could these US strikes backfire and motivate the ISIS fighters to retaliate against US citizens? Bradley: This is the thing, when you're talking about a group like ISIS, who call themselves the Islamic State or the caliphate, we're not really talking about an organization that is going to become less or more angry with the United States. This is a group that is so extreme that even al-Qaeda has told them to calm down and to try to moderate their message a little bit. So it's not going to anger them any more or make them somehow more amenable to American influence if we don't help the Kurds or the Iraqis in attacking them directly. This is a group that's hell-bent on reversing American influence throughout the world and whether or not we try to fight it, it's simply a question of ideology. Werman: That's Matt Bradley who reports for the Wall Street Journal. He joined us from Baghdad.