Just a couple of months ago, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East said Iraq's Shiite militias have American blood on their hands and he hoped today's U.S. strategy to defeat the Islamic State extremists will not involve an alliance with those groups.
"Three tours in Iraq commanding troops who were brutalized by some of these Shia militias ... I will not — and I hope we never — coordinate or cooperate with the Shia militias," Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, chief of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 26.
But after the demoralizing fall of the city of Ramadi to Islamic State forces a few days ago, the U.S. faces a hard choice: Agree to possibly provide airstrikes in support of the Shiite militias that are preparing a counteroffensive or risk allowing the Islamic State to consolidate control over the strategically important city.
Several thousand Shiite militiamen reportedly are streaming into Sunni-dominated Anbar province. Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi publicly called for the groups, known as Popular Mobilization units, to go west and help the Iraqi army forces prepare for an imminent attack on Ramadi. Many military experts believe the Shiite militias are essential to winning that fight.
Some of those Popular Mobilization units likely include fighters linked to groups that targeted U.S. troops during the eight-year U.S. occupation, which ended in 2011.
For now, U.S. Central Command officials are not ruling out potential support for the Shiite groups if they agree to cooperate with the Iraqi military.
"We're going to provide air cover to all forces that are under the command and control of the government of Iraq," Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a CENTCOM spokesman, told reporters Wednesday.
That signals a significant shift, said Ramzy Mardini, a former State Department official and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
"The U.S. has effectively changed its position, coming to the realization that Shiite militias are a necessary evil in the fight against ISIS," Mardini told Military Times in an email Wednesday.