Iraqi diplo­mat wants Obama to be en­gaged more in al Qaeda cri­sis

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Iraq’s am­bas­sador to Wash­ing­ton says the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion doesn’t fully grasp the con­se­quences of fail­ing to more ag­gres­sively com­bat a surg­ing al Qaeda threat in­side his coun­try, point­edly sug­gest­ing that Pres­i­dent Obama has been less en­gaged with Bagh­dad than his pre­de­ces­sor.

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion has to have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of any ad­verse im­pact of any de­lay in pro­vi­sion of sup­port to Iraq,” Am­bas­sador Luk­man Faily told The Wash­ing­ton Times in an in­ter­view Wed­nes­day. “It can­not af­ford a whole town or prov­ince of Iraq fall­ing to al Qaeda and be­com­ing a safe haven. It’s against the U.S. strate­gic in­ter­est. It’s against the U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity to do that.”

Asked whether the White House could do more to fa­cil­i­tate a tighter re­la­tion­ship with Iraq, Mr. Faily said, “to a cer­tain ex­tent they can. But we are no longer in a pe­riod in which we had Pres­i­dent Bush, who took own­er­ship of that re­la­tion­ship.”

With al Qaeda-linked vi­o­lence surg­ing in Iraq, Mr. Faily urged U.S. lead­ers in both par­ties to stop al­low­ing mil­i­tary and na­tion­build­ing re­sources for his coun­try to be­come em­broiled in do­mes­tic U.S. pol­i­tics even as he dis­missed sug­ges­tions that Iraq is in dan­ger of fall­ing into a full-fledged civil war be­tween its Shi­ite and Sunni pop­u­la­tions.

“I per­son­ally think that it’s tragic that the is­sue of the whole Amer­i­can project in Iraq is now be­com­ing a ball in re­la­tions to the party pol­i­tics within D.C.,” the am­bas­sador said. “I don’t think it’s ben­e­fi­cial for the United States. It’s def­i­nitely not ben­e­fi­cial for Iraq to be­come a tool in Repub­li­can ver­sus Demo­crat or whomever.

“This is not help­ful for U.S. se­cu­rity, it is not help­ful for us, it is not help­ful for the re­gion.”

Given word of The Times’ in­ter­view with Mr. Faily, the White House re­sponded Wed­nes­day evening that there is a high level of en­gage­ment be­tween U.S. and Iraqi of­fi­cials and that the U.S. is pro­vid­ing ex­ten­sive mil­i­tary sup­port to Iraq through Wash­ing­ton’s For­eign Mil­i­tary Sales pro­gram, but that the Iraqi gov­ern­ment needed to take the lead on coun­ter­ing ter­ror­ists in the na­tion.

Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil spokes­woman Ber­nadette Mee­han told The Times in an email, “We are com­mit­ted to part­ner­ing with the gov­ern­ment of Iraq to build their ca­pac­ity to fight ter­ror­ism, but the so­lu­tion to this is­sue must be an Iraqi-led so­lu­tion.”

Still, Mr. Faily made the re­marks as vi­o­lence ap­peared to be spread­ing Wed­nes­day be­yond Iraq’s western An­bar prov­ince, where al Qaeda-linked mil­i­tants have claimed con­trol of the city of Fal­lu­jah and parts of the city of Ra­madi for more than a week.

Au­thor­i­ties said mil­i­tants killed 12 gov­ern­ment sol­diers dur­ing an at­tack on Iraqi army bar­racks north of Bagh­dad Wed­nes­day, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by The As­so­ci­ated Press.

Al Qaeda’s gains in An­bar have added fuel to a po­lit­i­cal fight in Wash­ing­ton over whether the U.S. mil­i­tary should re­turn to Iraq. Some Repub­li­cans ar­gue that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion moved too hastily in pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq two years ago and has not done enough since to help the U.S.-trained Iraqi mil­i­tary main­tain se­cu­rity.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced this week that it would in­crease and ac­cel­er­ate de­liv­ery to the Iraqi mil­i­tary of sur­veil­lance drones, as well as air-to-sur­face Hell­fire mis­siles. But the sit­u­a­tion presents a dif­fi­cult chal­lenge for the White House — par­tic­u­larly be­cause Mr. Obama ran for of­fice six years ago on a prom­ise of end­ing the war in Iraq.

Mr. Faily ap­peared to take pains to avoid open crit­i­cism, but he said the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been no­tably less will­ing to “buy in” to a strat­egy of pro­vid­ing deep sup­port to Bagh­dad than the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion was.

That re­luc­tance, he sug­gested, puts the U.S. in the po­si­tion of ig­nor­ing a ma­jor strate­gic in­ter­est, par­tic­u­larly since the pro­duc­tion of oil in Iraq has the po­ten­tial to in­crease to “a level in which it can re­ally sta­bi­lize world en­ergy,” he said. “Iraq is the only coun­try with that ca­pa­bil­ity or po­ten­tial.”

The am­bas­sador sug­gested that Wash­ing­ton’s in­dif­fer­ence to­ward Iraq may date to the 2011 de­ci­sion for the U.S. to be­gin with­draw­ing troops. Some on Capi­tol Hill be­lieve the move was fu­eled as much by U.S. pol­i­tics as it was by Iraqi de­sires to claim a sense of sovereignty af­ter nearly a decade of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion.

“You have a re­flec­tion of, should we have left or should we have not left at the end of 2011,” Mr. Faily said. “To me, in our anal­y­sis of that, the abrupt­ness of the U.S. forces leav­ing, ver­sus our own Iraqi de­sire to have sovereignty, what we are see­ing now is the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of those two things — in which there was no clar­ity to the day-af­ter sce­nario.”

“It’s not a mat­ter of blame. It’s a mat­ter of short-ter­mism ar­riv­ing over the na­tional strate­gic in­ter­ests of the coun­tries,” he said. “For ex­am­ple, the U.S. forces left, but by the time they left, we had no air force. And then we were blamed [by Wash­ing­ton], why the Syr­ian over­flights took place. We had no air force, we can’t force a plane down. And now we’re ask­ing for F-16s, and the U.S. says, why do you need F-16s?”

Mr. Faily said Bagh­dad also has strug­gled to cope with the flow of al Qaeda-linked Sunni Mus­lim ex­trem­ists across the Syr­i­aIraq bor­der.

The am­bas­sador sought to down­play a nar­ra­tive that has be­come com­mon in the U.S. me­dia: that the Shi­ite-dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter al-Ma­liki has fo­mented sec­tar­ian ten­sions by ig­nor­ing the plight of the Sunni pop­u­la­tion.

Hu­man rights groups have ac­cused the al-Ma­liki gov­ern­ment of strate­gi­cally and po­lit­i­cally alien­at­ing Iraq’s Sun­nis. Some lead­ing for­eign pol­icy an­a­lysts in Wash­ing­ton have gone so far as to sug­gest that the gov­ern­ment’s pos­ture has prompted res­i­dents in Sunni-dom­i­nated ar­eas to tol­er­ate the pres­ence of al Qaeda-linked groups such as the Is­lamic State in Iraq and the Le­vant, which seized con­trol of Fal­lu­jah last week.

“The resur­gence of al Qaeda and other ex­trem­ist move­ments, and the grow­ing depth of its sec­tar­ian and eth­nic di­vi­sions, is the fault of its po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, not out­side states or a lack of Iraqi na­tion­al­ism and in­her­ent forces within Iraqi so­ci­ety,” stated a re­port re­leased Mon­day by An­thony Cordes­man and Sam Khazai, who are an­a­lysts with the Center for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

Mr. Faily dis­missed crit­i­cisms of Mr. al-Ma­liki’s han­dling of the sit­u­a­tion and as­serted that the Iraqi prime min­is­ter is deeply sen­si­tive to the chal­lenges of grow­ing a na­tional Iraqi iden­tity that in­cludes peo­ple from across the na­tion’s di­verse re­li­gious, eth­nic and eco­nomic land­scape.

He said the al-Ma­liki gov­ern­ment is try­ing to come to grips with how to re­spond ef­fec­tively but care­fully to the de­vel­op­ments in Fal­lu­jah in such a way that does not in­flame mod­er­ate Sun­nis. “We have not made an at­tack on Fal­lu­jah be­cause we don’t want to cause ca­su­al­ties. So we don’t want to throw … the baby out with the bath wa­ter,” he said. “We want to dis­tin­guish and iso­late the ter­ror­ists or the ex­trem­ists from the peo­ple.

“We do not want to be in­dis­crim­i­nate in our killing of al Qaeda and oth­ers as well,” he added, as­sert­ing that the al-Ma­liki gov­ern­ment wants cit­i­zens in the re­gion to feel that “their lives are sa­cred” as Iraqis.

Mr. Faily said the process of be­ing “so­phis­ti­cated in our se­lec­tion as to who are the ter­ror­ists and ji­hadists” should be helped by “in­tel­li­gence from the United States, co­op­er­a­tion and data anal­y­sis and coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence mea­sures” as well as the pro­vi­sion of mil­i­tary hard­ware.

The am­bas­sador also called on U.S. lead­ers to un­der­stand that Iraqi so­ci­ety is far more com­plex than the Sunni and Shi­ite sec­tar­ian di­vides com­monly ref­er­enced in the U.S. me­dia.

While he ac­knowl­edged that the re­gion is “go­ing through po­lar­iza­tion” be­tween Sunni and Shi­ite pow­ers — with Iraq sandwiched be­tween the Sunni king­dom of Saudi Ara­bia on one side and the Shi­ite Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran on the other, Mr. Faily down­played the no­tion that the two Mus­lim sects in­side Iraq are on the verge of civil war.

To prove his point, he as­serted that Sun­nis flee­ing al Qaeda-linked vi­o­lence in An­bar prov­ince are find­ing refuge in Shi­ite ar­eas. “When peo­ple in Fal­lu­jah and An­bar now have prob­lems and they are run­ning away from their cities, they are go­ing to Kar­bala and Na­jaf to take safe haven,” he said. “Th­ese are pure Shi­ite towns. You don’t take refuge in your op­po­site sect if you have an is­sue of sec­tar­i­an­ism.”

He added that sec­tar­i­an­ism in Iraqi pol­i­tics should be viewed within the con­text of the tu­mul­tuous path the na­tion is travers­ing from the decades of dic­ta­tor­ship un­der Sad­dam Hus­sein to be­com­ing a plu­ral and di­verse democ­racy.

“Un­for­tu­nately, it’s not as bi­nary as Shi­ite-Sunni. I wish it was, but it is not,” Mr. Faily said.

He ac­knowl­edged that, from Wash­ing­ton, the po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions in Bagh­dad may ap­pear dis­as­trous when they are in fact pro­gress­ing through the dif­fi­cult process of cre­at­ing a plu­ral democ­racy in wake of dic­ta­tor­ship.

He called on U.S. lead­ers from both sides of the po­lit­i­cal aisle, and par­tic­u­larly on Capi­tol Hill in Wash­ing­ton, to make more of an ef­fort to un­der­stand the com­plex­i­ties of Iraqi po­lit­i­cal so­ci­ety. “U.S. con­gress­men have to have bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the pol­i­tics, and not look at Iraq in a bi­nary way as Sunni-Shi­ite-Kurd,” he said. “It won’t work. I’m a Kurd and a Shi­ite. Where does that put me in this par­a­digm?”

AN­DREW HARNIK/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Luk­man Faily, Iraqi am­bas­sador to the United States, says the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is not as en­gaged in his coun­try’s fu­ture as was the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, but adds that sec­tar­ian di­vi­sions are not about to erupt into civil war.

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