BAIJI, Iraq — On the front lines of the battle against the Islamic State, suspicion of the United States runs deep. Iraqi fighters say they have all seen the videos purportedly showing U.S. helicopters airdropping weapons to the militants, and many claim they have friends and relatives who have witnessed similar instances of collusion.
Ordinary people also have seen the videos, heard the stories and reached the same conclusion — one that might seem absurd to Americans but is widely believed among Iraqis — that the United States is supporting the Islamic State for a variety of pernicious reasons that have to do with asserting American control over Iraq, the wider Middle East and, perhaps, its oil.
“It is not in doubt,” said Mustafa Saadi, who says his friend saw U.S. helicopters delivering bottled water to Islamic State positions. He is a commander in one of the Shiite militias that last month helped push the militants out of the oil refinery near Baiji in northern Iraq alongside the Iraqi army.
The Islamic State is “almost finished,” he said. “They are weak. If only America would stop supporting them, we could defeat them in days.”
U.S. military officials say the charges are too far-fetched to merit a response. “It’s beyond ridiculous,” said Col. Steve Warren, the military’s Baghdad-based spokesman. “There’s clearly no one in the West who buys it, but unfortunately, this is something that a segment of the Iraqi population believes.”
The perception among Iraqis that the United States is somehow in cahoots with the militants it claims to be fighting appears, however, to be widespread across the country’s Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide, and it speaks to more than just the troubling legacy of mistrust that has clouded America’s relationship with Iraq since the 2003 invasion and the subsequent withdrawal eight years later.
At a time when attacks by the Islamic State in Paris and elsewhere have intensified calls for tougher action on the ground, such is the level of suspicion with which the United States is viewed in Iraq that it is unclear whether the Obama administration would be able to significantly escalate its involvement even if it wanted to.
“What influence can we have if they think we are supporting the terrorists?” asked Kirk Sowell, an analyst based in neighboring Jordan who publishes the newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics.
In one example of how little leverage the United States now has, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi pushed back swiftly against an announcement Tuesday by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter that an expeditionary force of U.S. troops will be dispatched to Iraq to conduct raids, free hostages and capture Islamic State leaders.
Carter did not say how many soldiers would be deployed or where. Iraq’s semiautonomous region of Kurdistan, where support for the United States remains strong, has said it would welcome more troops. But Abadi indicated they would not be needed.
“There is no need for foreign ground combat troops,” he said in a statement. “Any such support and special operations anywhere in Iraq can only be deployed subject to the approval of the Iraqi Government and in coordination with the Iraqi forces and with full respect to Iraqi sovereignty.”
The allegations of American collusion with the Islamic State are aired regularly in parliament by Shiite politicians and promoted in postings on social media. They are persistent enough to suggest a deliberate campaign on the part of Iran’s allies in Iraq to erode American influence, U.S. officials say.
In one typical recent video that appeared on the Facebook page of a Shiite militia, a lawmaker with the country’s biggest militia group, the Badr Organization, waves apparently new U.S military MREs (meals ready to eat) — one of them chicken and dumplings — allegedly found at a recently captured Islamic State base in Baiji, offering proof, he said, of U.S. support.
“The Iranians and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias are really pushing this line of propaganda, that the United States is supporting ISIL,” Warren said. “It’s part of the Iranian propaganda machine.”
The perception plays into a widening rift within Iraq’s ruling Shiite elite over whether to pivot more toward Iran or the United States. Those pushing the allegations “want to create a narrative that Iran is our ally and the United States is our enemy, and this undermines Abadi, who is America’s ally,” Sowell said.
Iraqi government officials say they don’t believe the charges, and point out that Abadi regularly pushes back against them. But Abadi’s own position has weakened in recent months. He is battling for his political survival against a variety of Shiite militia leaders whose power has been bolstered by the increasingly dominant role played on the battlefield by the militias, collectively known as Hashd al-Shaabi, or popular mobilization units.
Iraqi officials complain that their task is hampered by what is universally perceived as the lackluster U.S. response to the threat posed by the Islamic State.
“We don’t believe the Americans support Daesh,” said Naseer Nouri, spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “But it is true that most people are saying they do, and they are right to believe that the Americans should be doing much more than they are. It’s because America is so slow that most people believe they are supporting Daesh.”
U.S. warplanes routinely fail to respond to requests for air support because of U.S. rules of engagement that preclude strikes if there is a risk civilians may be hit, he said. According to Warren, that standard frequently is not met. The United States has conducted more than 3,768 strikes in Iraq as of Nov. 19, according to the U.S. military, and the tempo of strikes has increased lately, U.S. officials say.
But it also appears that the fighters are unaware when they do receive U.S. air support. The U.S. military reported near-daily strikes in support of the offensive to recapture Baiji last month and continues regularly to respond to requests for strikes in the vicinity, Warren said.
The fighters there insist there have been no strikes by the Americans at all. “We’d be better off without them,” said 1st Lt. Murtada Fadl, who is serving with the Iraqi Special Forces in Baiji. He said that the only air support had come from the Iraqi air force and that he wishes the government would ask the Russians to replace the Americans.
In a part of the world where outcomes are often confused with intentions and regional complexities enable conspiracy theories to thrive, the notion that the United States is colluding with the Islamic State holds a certain logic, according to Mustafa Alani, director of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. Most Arabs are too in awe of American might to believe that it is deliberately adopting a minimalist approach, he said.
“The reason is that the Americans aren’t doing the job people expect them to do,” he said. “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.”
On the streets of Baghdad, most Iraqis see no other explanation.
“The image of the U.S. was damaged in the region, so they created Daesh in order to fight them and restore their image,” said Mohammed Abdul Khaleq, a journalist for a local TV station who was drinking coffee in a cafe favored by writers, most of whom said they agreed.
A rare dissenting voice was offered by Hassan Abdul-Wahab, 23, selling luggage in a nearby shop. “It is true that most people believe that,” he said. “But it’s not based on reason. It’s based on racism — because Iraqis don’t like Americans in the first place.”