A Cross-Sectarian Vision for Defeating the Islamic State in Iraq

By Nussaibah Younis, published by Carnegie Middle East Center.



As the Iraqi government wages war against the Islamic State, it is severely underestimating the extent to which continued, deep-seated mistrust among Iraq’s ethnosectarian communities is undermining its effort. Iraqi Shia have largely failed to understand the fears that are keeping Iraqi Sunnis away from the fight against the radical jihadist group; Iraqi Sunnis have long miscalculated their leverage in the country’s politics and have backed themselves into a fatal corner with the Islamic State; and Iraqi Kurds are single-mindedly pursuing a vision of independence, which is standing in the way of cooperation in the war against the Islamic State.

In many of the Sunni-dominated areas in which the self-proclaimed Islamic State has entrenched itself, locals have been unwilling to fight against the Sunni extremist group. Not only do they fear extreme reprisals from the Islamic State, but they also worry that, even if they succeed, they stand to have their areas returned to the control of what they see as an oppressive Iranian-influenced Shia government in Baghdad. This sense has been reinforced by the inability of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government to deliver on security and civil protection reforms that it has long promised the Sunni community.

The pockets of Sunnis who are motivated to fight the Islamic State, often because of existing relationships with the Iraqi government or an unwillingness to cede their own local power, have in many circumstances failed to receive the weapons and military support they need to effectively defend themselves.

Meanwhile, many of Iraq’s predominantly Shia military officers are left to wonder why young Shia should be sacrificing their lives to defend Sunni lands when so many Sunnis appear to be unwilling to do so for themselves.

The suspicion, misapprehension, and anger nursed by Iraq’s Sunni and Shia sects are grounded in memories of victimhood, activated by incendiary political narratives, and exacerbated by the daily atrocities of the Islamic State. And a mutual incomprehension of the fear and suffering faced by each sect is preventing the country from formulating an effective strategy to defeat the Islamic State.

Iraqi Kurdistan, in turn, has its own priorities. After a century of suffering under the authority of centralist governments, the Kurds’ pursuit of independence has become central to their politics. Kurdish political leaders are frank about their desire to secede from Iraq and often admit their intention to remain a part of the country as long as they can extract material and political benefits from it—and not a moment longer.

Although such an approach to the Iraqi central government is rooted in tragic historical experiences, it is viewed as excessively cynical by many non-Kurdish Iraqi politicians. Skepticism of Kurdish intentions has been reinforced by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG’s) moves to take disputed territories during the fight against the Islamic State. And the pursuit of independence has exacerbated mistrust between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government and undermined cooperation between two key participants in the war against the Islamic State.

The fall of the central Iraqi city of Ramadi to the Islamic State in May 2015, after an eighteen-month-long defense mounted by Sunni tribal fighters in conjunction with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), marks another humiliating failure of the Iraqi state. At a time when many had forecast a battle to retake Mosul, a city in northern Iraq that fell to the Islamic State in June 2014, instead more territory is being lost.

The Iraqi government and the global coalition against the Islamic State must prioritize a thorough assessment of the deficiencies in their strategy to defeat the militant group. If they fail to make necessary adjustments, they risk seeing the Islamic State further entrench itself in communities that it controls.

The Need for Realistic Sunni Leadership

Iraq’s Sunni community had legitimate grievances when it came to the domineering rule of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia who was widely seen as marginalizing Sunnis when he led the country from 2006 to 2014. But Iraq’s Sunni leadership has significantly overestimated the leverage that it has in an Iraq after Saddam Hussein, where its community is no longer disproportionately empowered by the government.

In interviews with scores of influential financiers, businessmen, and political leaders in the community, it has often been striking to hear the breadth of their demands on the Iraqi government and their failure to understand the perceptions of the country’s majority Shia community.

During widespread protests that took place across Sunni regions of Iraq in 2013, Sunni leaders called for the mass release of prisoners and the repeal of antiterror laws—without public consideration of how the government could go about combating the campaign of terror that al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor, was mounting against the Shia community.

By failing to recognize the real impact of terrorism on the daily lives of Iraq’s Shia community, the Sunni protest movement missed an opportunity to build bridges and articulate its demands in cross-sectarian terms. Rather than focusing on the many shared complaints about governance issues and service delivery, the Sunni protests focused almost exclusively on Sunni concerns. And, when the protests failed to elicit results, some Sunnis resorted to calling for the use of force rather than attempting to appeal to the wider Iraqi population for support.

One important Sunni political financier said in an interview at the height of the 2013 protests that if Maliki would not give up power, “even we moderates will have to take up arms against him.”1 Many others I interviewed agreed with the need for some kind of violent action against the Maliki government, based on a faulty analysis of the Sunni community’s strength in Iraq. Some Sunni leaders, for instance, continue to cling to the notion that Sunnis make up a majority of Iraq’s population.

The rhetoric coming from the Sunni leadership at this time mimicked that of the Sunni resistance movement of 2003 and 2004, which fought against U.S. forces even though it had little chance of success and suffered bloody consequences.

Despite the violence and the suffering that has overtaken Iraq in the years since then, one Sunni tribal leader told me that he had absolutely no regrets about supporting the armed resistance of that time.2 Instead, ten years later, elements of the Sunni leadership were issuing a new call to arms, demonstrating their abject failure to learn from the consequences of the Iraqi civil war of 2005–2007. That conflict was taken over by al-Qaeda in Iraq, and by any measure, was thoroughly lost by Iraqi Sunnis, with innocent civilians paying the highest price.

Once Maliki crushed the 2013 Sunni protest movement—using a mixture of threats, violence, and intimidation—unrest spread quickly. After the final major protest camp, near Ramadi, was forcibly shut down by the Iraqi Security Forces in December 2013, violence swept across Anbar Province, eventually leading to the expulsion of the ISF from Fallujah, the largest city in the province. In the early months of 2014, attacks against the Iraqi Security Forces were led by a coalition of Sunni forces, including the Islamic State; Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia, a group with ties to the former ruling Baath Party; and assorted tribal groups and other militant organizations. A collection of similar groups aided the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul, and parts of the wider Sunni community supported the move, apparently convinced that they could use the Islamic State to bring down the Maliki government and achieve the political reforms that they had been demanding.

Even after evidence of the atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State began to mount, some Sunni leaders defended their decision to either actively or passively enable the group’s advance. As one tribal leader put it, Sunni leaders had simply formed a military council to “defend their areas,” while it was Maliki who had allowed terrorists to overrun the “legitimate Sunni resistance.”3

Once again, parts of the Iraqi Sunni leadership had ushered the country’s Sunni community into an era of tragedy from which it is unlikely to meaningfully recover. Sunni political leaders who have tried to adopt a discourse more inclined to compromise in Baghdad are often derided by their Sunni constituencies as sellouts, making it very difficult for moderate politicians to both maintain their credibility among their communities and work effectively with Shia partners in Baghdad.

Sunnis Suffer the Brunt

A year after the fall of Mosul, it is Iraq’s Sunnis who have suffered the most from the Islamic State’s advances. Their community has been decimated by the Islamic State’s conquest. And, if a long war of attrition with the group continues, Iraqi Sunnis will have little to look forward to beyond a return to areas ravaged by conflict, heavily garrisoned with troops, and deprived of the resources and investment needed to restore dignity and opportunity.

The vast majority of the 3 million Iraqis displaced from areas under Islamic State control are Sunni. Where Sunnis have sought refuge, they have at times been treated with derision and suspicion, blamed for the advent of the Islamic State, and feared as possible terrorists. Baghdad, parts of southern Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan, which is hosting almost half of those forced from their homes, have all issued restrictions on the movement of internally displaced people, leaving thousands in limbo.

The United Nations is running out of funds designated for the crisis. It has already cut rations, and it warned in June 2015 that it will have to cut its operations in Iraq in half if it does not receive further support from the international community in the coming months.

A number of the areas that have been liberated from the Islamic State—such as Jurf al-Sakhar, in the center of the country, and Tikrit and Zumar, in the north—are now garrisoned with Shia militias that make up the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which was formed to fight the militants, or with Kurdish peshmerga fighters. In some cases, both the PMF and the peshmerga are refusing to allow Sunni residents to return to their homes, fearing that Islamic State elements could embed with returning refugees and infiltrate these areas.

Meanwhile, many Sunni families consider returning to places that have been cleared of the Islamic State too risky, fearing that Shia forces will commit revenge attacks against them in retaliation for Islamic State crimes. As in the 2005–2007 civil war, many Iraqi Sunnis are once again afraid that they are considered guilty by association, and they fear retribution.

The Islamic State has had the most success in occupying Sunni areas, and the destruction caused by its attacks and by U.S. bombardment of those areas will take a generation to repair. With the collapse of oil prices that began in late 2014, Baghdad has already been struggling to cope with the financial burdens of its counterinsurgency, and it is unlikely to be able to meet the costs of reconstruction for many years to come.

It is crucial that Iraq’s Sunni leaders realize the dire straits that their community is in and that they adopt a realistic approach to dealing with the Iraqi government in order to bring about the fastest possible defeat of the Islamic State. Sunni leaders must also seek the authority to work on compromises with Baghdad by persuading their constituencies that, as a matter of survival, Iraqi Sunnis should support the fight against the Islamic State as unequivocally as possible.

Adjusting the Shia Approach

The belief among many in the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces is that Sunnis are overwhelmingly supporters of the Islamic State and that the fight against the militant group can and must be won without significant Sunni support. This Shia-centric strategy fails to recognize that the Islamic State cannot be definitively cleared from Iraq without the support of Iraq’s Sunni population.

The approach of the Popular Mobilization Forces has been to heavily defend Shia areas, invest in clearing territory from which the Islamic State could attack Shia areas, eject Islamic State forces from mixed sectarian locations, and indirectly cleanse these areas of Sunnis—and to avenge their fallen comrades in areas where the Islamic State has committed anti-Shia atrocities, such as the massacre of several hundred captured Iraqi soldiers in the summer of 2014 in Tikrit.

If these Shia forces play a leading role in retaking Sunni-majority areas from the Islamic State, recent experience suggests that large numbers of Sunni men are likely to be imprisoned for unproven associations with the group, the heavy-handed garrisoning of Sunni towns with Shia troops is likely to continue, and little investment in reconstructing damaged areas or generating new economic opportunities will be forthcoming. Although these are understandable approaches to areas that have been used as launchpads for anti-Shia terror, they are also exactly the conditions in which extremism flourishes. Using the Shia militias to clear and hold Sunni territory may be the fastest way to remove the Islamic State from Iraq, but it is likely to sow the seeds for the further radicalization of Iraq’s Sunni community and generate even greater conflict in the future.

A smart, long-term strategy for defeating the Islamic State must be Sunni-centric, not because the Sunni community deserves special treatment, but because fixing Iraq’s extremism problem requires acknowledging and addressing the Sunni alienation from the new Iraqi nation and from its governance structures that is the source of Sunnis’ vulnerability to extremism. Dealing with the grievances that have led some in the Sunni community to accept the Islamic State does not in any way justify or excuse their actions, but it is the only way to decisively end violent extremism in Iraq.

An effective strategy must also take into account the dilemma faced by Sunnis trapped under the vicious rule of the Islamic State who fear that any attempt to organize a resistance would place them, and their families, at enormous risk.

The messaging of the Iraqi government, the Popular Mobilization Forces, and the Iraqi Security Forces is absolutely crucial. Until now, for example, the PMF has largely reinforced sectarian divisions. Instead, Sunni fighters should be integrated into leadership positions in the PMF to the greatest extent possible, and religious symbolism should be removed from the flags, uniforms, and equipment of PMF battalions. In addition, a transparent process of transitional justice should be established to fairly distinguish Islamic State fighters from ordinary Iraqi civilians. These moves will go a long way to convincing Sunni civilians that the anti–Islamic State fight is not a sectarian effort, that the post–Islamic State Iraq will treat them justly, and that they stand to benefit from expelling the Islamic State from their areas.

The Iraqi government has made some efforts to do this. The “We Are at Your Service, Hussein” military campaign in Anbar Province, which referred to a highly revered Shia imam, was renamed “We Are at Your Service, Iraq” in mid-2015, and some PMF units have started flying the Iraqi flag. But much more needs to be done to persuade the Shia militias of the merits of a Sunni-centric strategy.

The Inevitability of Kurdish Secession

The crisis presented by the Islamic State has reduced tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad to some extent. But the underlying points of disagreement remain unresolved, and they must begin to be tackled now in an effort to prevent war from breaking out between the Kurdish peshmerga and the Shia PMF in the aftermath of an Islamic State defeat.

Kurdistan’s regional leadership has no intention of relinquishing the disputed territories it has seized in the course of the war against the Islamic State, it continues to be locked in bitter disputes with Baghdad over budget payments and oil revenue transfers, and it makes no secret of its intention to declare independence at some point in the future.

There is an enormous trust deficit between Baghdad and Erbil; Iraqi Kurds fear that Baghdad’s centrist tendencies will eventually lead to a renewal of the repression they have long faced at the hands of Iraqi governments, while Iraqi Arabs see the Kurds as cynical, self-interested maximalists out to steal as much from Iraq as they can before they declare independence.

Iraqi Kurdish independence indeed appears to be an inevitability. During a May 2015 trip to Washington, DC, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said that “certainly an independent Kurdistan is coming” and declared that the unity of Iraq was “voluntary and not compulsory.” Given such oft-repeated refrains, it is difficult to disentangle any of the disputes between Erbil and Baghdad from the wider negotiation over the terms of Kurdish secession.

For its part, the international community should be realistic about the prospect of the breakup of Iraq in the aftermath of the war on the Islamic State and should begin facilitating discussions between KRG and Iraqi central government representatives in order to prevent the process of separation from becoming violent.

In order to effectively defeat the Islamic State, the Iraqi government needs the full cooperation of the Kurdish peshmerga fighters—who have been reluctant to become entangled in the conflict beyond their border zones—and a deal on secession could stipulate such involvement. One senior Kurdish politician told me that, had the Islamic State not attacked Erbil, the KRG would have been happy to stay out of the war entirely. “This was not our fight, we had no interest in fighting it,” he said bluntly, adding that the KRG strategy was to secure a buffer zone around its territory and then build a metaphorical wall “between us and the mess that is Iraq.”4

There is also a great deal of anxiety in Iraqi Kurdistan about the fate of displaced Iraqis. A plan of action to overcome existing hurdles and reintegrate internally displaced Sunnis back into Arab Iraq could also form an important part of negotiations between Baghdad and the KRG.

Working Together to Fight the Islamic State

At the most fundamental level, almost all Iraqis want the same thing regardless of their ethnic or sectarian affiliation. They want a functional government that provides them with security, regular electricity, clean water, sewage, and access to healthcare, education, and employment. But a history of interethnic and religious violence and a legacy of mistrust means that Iraqis often interpret the needs of another community as threatening to their own.

As it confronts the Islamic State, the Iraqi government must generate a compelling vision for the future of Sunni Iraq that does not involve being heavily policed, arbitrarily imprisoned, and forced to live in impoverished and half-destroyed areas. Such a vision should involve a significant measure of local autonomy, a share of Iraqi oil revenues, investments in repairing damaged infrastructure, and an effort to rebuild the local economy. At the same time, Iraq’s Shia elite must be persuaded that such measures are not a reward for terrorism, but are in fact the only ways to rid Iraq of extremism for the long term. And, while Kurdish secession appears inevitable, steps can be taken now to avoid violence and garner the KRG’s support in the fight against the Islamic State.

The international community has a role to play. Beyond simply deliberating over weapons shipments, calculating the numbers of advisers to be embedded with Iraqi units, and searching for targets for air strikes, Iraq’s allies must push the country’s politicians to make common ground beyond their own ethnic and sectarian affiliations.

In order to build a stable and secure future for Iraq, it is critical that Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds fight the fight against the Islamic State together, with a mutually agreed understanding of the post–Islamic State Iraq for which they are each fighting.

Nussaibah Younis is senior research associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington, DC.


1 Author interview with Sunni financier, March 1, 2013.

2 Author interview with Iraqi tribal leader, March 3, 2015.

3 Ibid.

4 Author interview with senior Kurdish politician, March 9, 2015.
Read more at: http://carnegie-mec.org/2015/07/06/cross-sectarian-vision-for-defeating-islamic-state-in-iraq/icvn

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Counterinsurgency Requires More than Guns: Refocusing on the Political Strategy to Defeat Islamic State in Iraq

By Nussaibah Younis, published by the Project on Middle East Democracy


Executive Summary

  • Political counterinsurgency was initially the centerpiece of U.S. efforts against IS, but the political war has been increasingly overshadowed by U.S. military engagement.
  • Although Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has reached out to Iraq’s Sunni community, and has begun to address corruption in the military and judiciary, much more needs to be done.
  • It is widely agreed that a Sunni “National Guard” force must be established to retake and hold territory from IS, but political quagmire in the Iraqi parliament is holding this up.
  • The U.S. should heavily engage in brokering agreements to help the “National Guard” and other concessions to Sunnis through the Iraqi political process.
  • The U.S. could aid this process by addressing the neglect of Shi’a Iraq and arranging a substantial budget transfer to support investment in Southern Iraq.

The Obama administration reacted with maturity and restraint to the fall of the major Iraqi city of Mosul to Islamic State (IS) in June 2014. Despite intense pressure to respond with the immediate use of military force, the administration took time to analyze the political realities in Iraq that had made such a catastrophe possible. They concluded that the governance of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had become so toxic that supporting his counterinsurgency efforts would risk strengthening support for IS and undermining the coalition against it. American envoys instead engaged in intense diplomatic efforts to bring about a new Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Working with Iraq’s politicians to bring this relatively conciliatory leader to the fore was a huge achievement, but since then progress on the political side of the war against IS has stalled. American strategy now appears to be dominated by the military side of the engagement, through conducting airstrikes and training, supplying, and supporting the Iraqi Security Forces. Although these elements are extremely important, the United States needs to rebalance this military effort with a renewed focus on the crucial political work that must take place in order for IS to be thoroughly defeated in Iraq.

Why the Political War Must be Fought

The resurgence of radical Islamist militancy in Iraq followed a period of collapsing Sunni confidence in the Iraqi political system. As Sunnis felt excluded, alienated, and even victimized by the Iraqi government, IS became able to operate increasingly openly in Sunni communities. Some Sunni leaders thought they could manipulate the IS presence to extract political concessions from the government, but they overestimated their ability to control IS and were quickly pushed aside. Although a small number of the Sunni population supported IS, most remained passive while IS fighters became more of a presence in their midst. Many Iraqi Sunnis were not willing to risk facing a brutal death at the hands of IS militants in order to preserve an Iraqi political system that they felt was not interested in protecting them. Needless to say, early Sunni passivity in the face of a growing IS presence was a colossal mistake, and Sunnis have paid a hefty price for it. The vast majority of the 1.75 million Iraqis who have been displaced are Sunni, and many of them face an uncertain future as they are seen as somewhat complicit in the approximately 35,000 civilian casualties that took place in Iraq in 2014.

Iraq needs to bring Iraqi Sunnis back into the political fold by acknowledging and addressing their grievances and by establishing a political reality that Sunnis have a genuine stake in. Although the idea of granting concessions to Iraq’s Sunni community after they seemingly allowed IS to take hold in the country may be morally repugnant to many Iraqis, it is also the only way of securing a future for Iraq without radical Islamist militancy. Even if IS can be cleared from the territories they currently hold in Iraq, control over these areas can only be maintained if their original Sunni inhabitants become sufficiently invested in the Iraqi political settlement that they will defend these territories against renewed attack. The alternatives, such as refusing to allow Sunnis re-entry into their towns and villages or exerting fierce military control over them, are actually likely to make Iraq more vulnerable to violent extremism over time. It is important to remember that IS is not merely an army that can be defeated; it is also an ideology that must be discredited and undermined otherwise it can continually self-renew by radicalizing local populations and drawing them into the fight.

President Obama recognized the importance of the political dimension of this conflict early in the anti-IS effort. In a press conference on August 28, 2014, he stated that “part of the goal here is to make sure that Sunnis, both in Syria and in Iraq, feel as if they’ve got an investment in a government that actually functions. A government that can protect them. A government that makes sure that their families are safe from the barbaric acts that we’ve seen in ISIL. And right now, those structures are not in place.”

To that end, the administration dispatched retired Marine Corps General John Allen and long-time Iraq diplomat Brett McGurk as special presidential envoys tasked in part with persuading Iraqi politicians to make the political moves necessary to undermine IS in Iraq.

Early Political Progress Was Made

The administration’s early focus on political change did lead to some wins, most notably the fall of the Maliki government and the coming to power of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi together with a new governing cabinet. Sunni and Kurdish communities in Iraq had feared that the Maliki government would never be removed from power, and in his final days Maliki appeared to be gathering forces to mount a military coup. But by working intensively with Iraq’s political and religious elite, particularly with the Shi’a clergy in Najaf, and aided by pressure from Iranian operatives, the United States was able to achieve a major political victory by persuading Maliki to allow a transfer of power.

The new Abadi government struck a conciliatory tone and reached out to Sunni and Kurdish leaders, as well as to regional powers, to try to repair some of the relationships that had been damaged during the years of the Maliki government. In his remarks at December’s counterterrorism conference in Brussels, Prime Minister Abadi acknowledged that “governmental reform, national reconciliation, and economic and social reconstruction” were a critical part of the anti-IS fight. The new prime minister has since taken some preliminary steps to addresses the fractured cross-sectarian relationships that have made Iraq so vulnerable to IS.

The Iraqi government has in particular made great strides in reconciling with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The KRG had spent much of the last few years mired in a tense and conflictual relationship with the Maliki government in Baghdad. A failure to agree on the terms for KRG independent oil exports led Maliki to withhold federal government payments to the region, causing months of debilitating financial chaos for the KRG. The KRG had become so frustrated with the federal government that they were seriously discussing the possibility of declaring independence and abandoning the Iraqi state. The Abadi government made it a priority to rebuild a relationship with the KRG. In December, it succeeded in striking a new deal that restores the transfer of 17 percent of the federal budget to the KRG (before the deduction of sovereign expenses) and awards one billion USD to the Peshmerga forces who were not previously paid or recognized as part of Iraq’s security forces by the Iraqi government.

Disagreements remain over the slow transfer of humanitarian aid to the KRG and the status of Kurdish forces in disputed territory, especially in the vicinity of Kirkuk’s major oilfields, but overall the Iraqi government and the KRG have a much more positive and productive relationship today and, as a result, are in a better position to collaborate effectively in the war against IS.

The Abadi government has also attempted to restore Sunni confidence in Baghdad by ending the indiscriminate shelling of Sunni areas, by addressing the rights of detainees, and by reshuffling senior officials in the Iraqi Security Forces. In September 2014, Prime Minister Abadi called on Iraqi Security Forces to halt a campaign of indiscriminate airstrikes that had been targeting areas taken by IS since June. In some cases, barrel bombs had been used, inflicting extreme damage on towns and killing dozens of civilians, and Sunni tribal and clerical leaders had been threatening not to support the Abadi government unless they were stopped. Abadi’s willingness to declare an end to such indiscriminate tactics was a positive step, although much more needs to be done to differentiate civilians and combatants in the fight to retake territory from IS.

The treatment of detainees has long been a major source of grievance for Iraq’s Sunni community, tens of thousands of whom protested throughout 2013 calling for, among other things, a prisoner amnesty. The system by which citizens are imprisoned is extremely chaotic and open to severe abuse, resulting in tens of thousands imprisoned without charge and often subjected to torture or degrading treatment. Sunnis believe that their community was targeted disproportionately out of a desire by Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated security forces to punish them for being the “source of terrorism” in Iraq, and as a result many Sunnis fear Iraq’s Security Forces rather than look to them for protection. The Abadi government has issued a decree mandating that Iraqi Security Forces work with the Ministry of Justice to create a central register of all detainees that records the reason for their incarceration and their timeline to trial. This is an important move that seeks to prevent Iraqi detention facilities from being a black hole where detainees disappear without ever being brought to trial. This will be an enormous task and much remains to be seen in terms of implementation, but this is an important first step in terms of signaling to the Iraqi Sunni community that the government is taking their concerns seriously.

Prime Minister Abadi also sought to signal his departure from the Maliki approach by abolishing the Office of the Commander in Chief, dismissing dozens of senior officers from the Iraqi Security Forces, and announcing a crackdown on corruption in the military. The Office of the Commander in Chief had previously been used by Maliki to exercise direct power over the armed forces, thereby circumventing traditional chains of command and fatally weakening the efficacy of Iraq’s armed services. Abadi’s attempts to professionalize the Iraqi army—though he admits this could take years—are an extremely important signal to Iraqi Sunnis that he intends to build an army free of sectarian and political agendas. The task of building Sunni confidence in Iraq’s security establishment is an enormous one, however, and has become more difficult as Shi’a militias outside of the control of Iraqi Security Forces have regrouped and are now playing a leading role in the fight against IS.

Political Reform Crucial to Success

Although the Abadi government has signaled in a number of different ways that it is keen to address the political roots of the resurgence of IS in Iraq, it has not been able to push these policies through Iraq’s fractious political system.

Prime Minister Abadi has agreed with the Unites States that Iraq should create a National Guard which would seek to regularize and channel support to Sunni tribesmen who are joining the fight against IS. Bringing Sunnis on board in the fight against IS is absolutely crucial, as the U.S. learnt during the Sahwa in 2007, but many Iraqi Shi’a simply do not trust Sunnis to be armed and do not believe that they should be paid and supported when Shi’a militias are not being sufficiently armed and paid. This is a real quandary for the Iraqi government, which may be seen as “rewarding” the community from which IS has developed. However, it is not realistic for the Iraqi government to retake and hold Sunni territory from IS without Sunni support. The United States should work with allies in the Iraqi government to intensively lobby those who are opposed to the National Guard. There should be strong reassurances that the National Guard will not operate in Shi’a areas and that members will be heavily vetted. The National Guard structure would allow the United States and the Iraqi Government to be much more responsive to the needs of Sunni groups seeking to fight IS, and it could prevent tragedies such as the massacre of over 300 tribesmen from the Albu Nimr tribe at the hands of IS last October. The United States has been reluctant to circumvent the authority of the Iraqi government by engaging with Sunni tribes directly, but if it is to maintain this policy, it needs to much more aggressively pursue the creation of the National Guard through the Iraqi political system.

The Iraqi government should also grant Sunni provinces their constitutional right to local self-government, with the Sunni National Guard ultimately being responsible for security in these areas and with Sunni local police taking control of arrests and detention to the greatest extent possible. The discriminatory and highly politicized de-Ba’athification policy that is used to prevent mainly Sunnis from access to lucrative government jobs must also come to an end, and stays of execution should be granted to Sunni political figures who have been sentenced to death in highly irregular and unfair judicial proceedings. By offering a vision for a fair political future of self-government for Sunnis within Iraq, the Abadi government will give Sunnis something to fight for and reassure them that there is a future for them in the country.

These will be difficult concessions to achieve in the Iraqi parliament, where Shi’a parties are answering to constituencies that want to punish, not reward, Iraq’s Sunni population. At a time when Iraq’s economy is struggling under the weight of low oil prices and the cost of an expansive counter-insurgency, Shi’a populations in the oil-rich South are sick of the lack of investment and growth in their towns and cities and scoff at the idea of paying a proportion of “their” oil wealth to an independent Sunni province. The United States should give the Iraqi government direct budget support to invest in infrastructure and social services in Southern Iraq. This will enable the Iraqi prime minister to win over the approval of political representatives from the South for measures to address Sunni grievances. There is currently a debate over the level of additional payments due to oil-producing regions in Iraq taking place in the Iraqi Parliament’s discussions over the FY 2015 Iraqi budget. Falling oil prices have led Baghdad to reduce the oil payments from the $5 per barrel forecasted to $2 per barrel, prompting outcry from oil-producing cities such as Basra. The United States should support greater generosity to the oil-producing South out of recognition that alienating Iraq’s majority Shi’a population, who happen to inhabit the most oil-rich parts of Iraq, will serve only to undermine support for the political strategy needed to defeat IS.

While stepping up assistance to Shi’a provinces, the Iraqi government must also take steps to regularize the behavior of the Shi’a militias that have come to play a leading role in the fight against IS. Although these militias, which have been branded Popular Mobilization Units, are indispensable given the crippling weakness of Iraq’s Security Forces, it is critical that there is some government oversight of their activities and that there is accountability when they commit criminal acts. There have been extensive accusations of Shi’a militias driving Sunnis from their homes, hunting down and killing Sunni men of a fighting age, and burning their homes, out of an assumption that all Sunnis are IS and that to allow them to resume their lives after IS is cleared from an area is to invite IS to return. But if Sunnis cannot trust those who are fighting IS to protect them, they face a choice of death or persecution at the hands of IS or death and persecution at the hands of Shi’a militias. Of course the Shi’a militias engaged in this war are extremely varied, and many have fought valiantly to protect and retake areas from IS and they enjoy a great deal of popular support among Iraqi Shi’as. This is even more reason to regularize and oversee their activities and to punish those who pursue a violent sectarian agenda.

Policy Recommendations

  • Remember that politics defeats insurgencies, not military force alone. When the U.S. focuses on political goals with urgency and clarity of vision, it can achieve a great deal. It is critical that the U.S. prevents its military engagement in the war against IS from overshadowing the political strategy that must be implemented in order for IS to be fatally undermined in the country. The political war against IS must once again become the centerpiece of the U.S. strategy, and there should be a rebalancing of the distribution of attention and of resources accordingly.
  • Engage in Iraqi politics to win concessions for Sunnis. Envoys from the United States should help to broker agreements between Iraqi politicians so that the Iraqi government can make progress in its plans to grant major concessions to Iraq’s Sunni community. It is critical that a National Guard be created that recognizes, funds, and protects the growing army of anti-IS Sunni fighters. Sunnis must also be offered a future in Iraq in which they will be locally autonomous, with their own police and section of the security forces, and with a fair proportion of Iraq’s wealth channeled to them. De-Ba’athification legislation that prevents Sunnis from fair access to government jobs must also be revoked, and stays of execution should be issued to Sunni political figures who have been convicted in specious judicial proceedings.
  • Enable the cash-strapped Iraqi government to invest in Shi’a Iraq. After years of horrific violence directed against it, Iraq’s Shi’a population is not going to allow its political representatives to make significant concessions to Iraq’s Sunnis unless they are reassured that their needs are also a top priority for the government. At a time when oil prices are falling and the country is already headed into deficit, the temptation is for the country to usher in a period of fiscal conservatism. Failing to invest in the political counterinsurgency will simply lead to many more years of spending on expensive military engagements. The United States should give the Iraqi government direct budget support to invest in infrastructure and social services in Southern Iraq. In return, political representatives from the South should be expected to approve Iraqi government measures to address Sunni grievances. Resources for this endeavor could be sought from the $2.1 billion Economic Support Fund included under the Overseas Contingency Operations title in FY15. Most of that $2.1 billion is designated for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Somalia, but the remaining $475 million is undesignated and a portion of that could be allocated to spending on Southern Iraq. By investing comparatively little in pushing through progress in the political war against IS today, the United States has the opportunity to forestall a much more costly long-term military engagement with IS in the years to come.
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US policies in the Arab world must be seen to resonate with its values

By Nussaibah Younis, published in The Guardian.

The US can’t preach against torture when it allows abuse to take place in its own agencies

Secretary of state John Kerry tried to suppress publication of the CIA torture report, citing fears of a blowback against US targets in the Middle East. But the truth is that the region barely flinched in response to the publication of the 528-page document.

Almost all state-run media in the region ignored the report entirely, keen to play down their complicity in rendition programmes and their own rampant use of torture in domestic prisons. And the public in Arab countries took the revelations simply as confirmation of facts that they had long believed to be true. That the report has prompted such uproar in the US is comic to a region that expects dastardly behaviour from the US. If anything, many in the Arab world suspect that these admissions are just a small part of a much wider set of abuses yet to be exposed.

Despite the muted reaction, the revelations of the CIA’s extensive use of torture are extremely damaging to the US and to the west in general. The details are already being used as ammunition by Islamic State (Isis) to discredit the coalition intervention in Syria and Iraq, and will also severely undermine US efforts to prevent the use of torture in the Middle East.

The fact remains, however, that for those in the Middle East, the US lost its moral authority long before the publication of this report, largely because of its interventions in the Arab-Israeli conflict and its support of authoritarian governments. US partiality on the Israel-Palestine conflict has been shown to undercut its moral legitimacy in the region, with more than 80% of Jordanians, Moroccans, Saudis and Lebanese believing that the US has not been even-handed in its efforts to negotiate a solution.

Continued US support for repressive governments has also undermined confidence in the country. In September, President Obama gave a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative declaring: “Partnering and protecting civil society groups around the world is now a mission across the US government.” At the same time, his administration has fought to bypass pro-democracy conditions on military aid to Egypt, and last week achieved its goal by inserting a “national security” waiver into the spending bill expected to be passed by Congress soon. This is despite the fact that the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has mounted a fierce attack against civil society organisations in Egypt, forcing many of them to suspend their operations or leave the country.

There is a sense among some in the Obama administration that in the face of security threats in the region, the US cannot afford to pursue a pro-democracy policy. But it is by failing to live up to the values that it claims to hold dear that the US most egregiously stokes anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and undermines its own interests. Moreover, many of the authoritarian regimes supported by the US disseminate anti-American propaganda in a shameless attempt to shore up their own legitimacy at the US’s expense. In August, Sisi accused the US of working with the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Turkey to fund online media projects that “aim to undermine Egypt’s stability”. The state-controlled Egyptian media is rife with absurd anti-American conspiracy theories.

The Bahraini government, which the US has failed to hold to account for its vicious crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in the country, has launched similarly outrageous attacks on the US. Bahrain barred congressman James McGovern from entering the country, expelled assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour Tom Malinowski, and presided over a campaign to vilify US ambassador Thomas Krajeski .

The result is that both regime supporters and opponents have huge antipathy towards the US, as the former buy into the propaganda circulated by the regime and the latter lament the lack of US support for their pro-democracy movements. In Bahrain, both the monarchists and Shia opponents have become increasingly anti-American. An academic study on Egypt also found that many of those both in favour of the military coup against President Morsi and those against it held anti-American views.

Concerns that the release of the Senate torture report would undermine US moral standing in the Middle East fail to recognise the vast damage that has already been done. Both US inconsistencies in its pursuit of democracy and human rights in the region, in conjunction with a fuelling of anti-American sentiment by state-run press in the Arab world, have contributed to a profound cynicism about US intentions in the region. The result is that even when the US tries to engage positively with the region, it is met with an unrelenting search for ulterior motives.

The best way for the US to improve its standing in the region is to pursue policies that resonate with US values. It cannot preach against the torture of prisoners when it allows such abuse to take place in its own agencies, and fails to hold those responsible to account.

The US should also reorient its foreign policy in order to hold other governments to account for their abuses of human rights, and refuse to supply military aid to those countries that use violence to suppress dissent. In the long term, supporting such regimes damages US credibility and undermines security.

The hope is that one day a credible report will reveal that the US has successfully enforced a zero-tolerance policy against torture and abuse. Then the Middle East really will be surprised.

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Nussaibah Younis discusses coalition against ISIS on Danish Radio

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Nussaibah Younis discusses new Iraqi government on BBC World Have Your Say

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Defeat the Islamic State

By Nussaibah Younis and Robert Caruso, published in the Boston Globe.

THE OBAMA administration, which has been dogged by foreign policy failures, claimed some rare successes this month. With US air support, Kurdish and Iraqi fighters were able to wrest control of the strategically important Mosul Dam from the militant Islamic State. Meanwhile, intensive US diplomacy, together with Iranian pressure and a shift in the tide of Iraqi popular opinion, forced Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down.

After years of insisting that the United States was incapable of affecting change in the tumultuous Iraqi political scene, the Obama foreign policy team is proving itself wrong. Had the Obama administration proactively engaged with the crises in Iraq and Syria several years ago, the world might have been spared the ferocity of the Islamic State. Nonetheless, it is essential that the United States now build on its success by working with its international partners, the new Iraqi government, and the Kurdish regional government, to confront and destroy the Islamic State in Iraq.

The Islamic State is an enemy that has no international support, and the United States is uniquely able to build an international coalition that can support the Iraqi government in its efforts to beat back the militants, reclaim Iraqi territory, and rescue the populations that are trapped under Islamic State rule. But combating ideologically motivated extremism is a delicate task; if done badly, it risks bolstering rather than defeating the militant cause. US military engagement in Iraq must be conducted alongside a sophisticated strategy to win back the support of those Iraqis who still view the Iraqi government as a greater threat than Islamic State militants.

In the post-Saddam Hussein era, the major challenge facing successive Iraqi governments has been the integration of the Sunni community. Courting the same communities that made the Sons of Iraq, the US military-sponsored security alliance of Sunni sheiks, a success will be critical. The United States must help Iraq’s new government reach out to all but the most hardline of the violent actors involved in this insurgency and offer them a path to political participation. Iraq’s politicians must also be persuaded that a willingness to devolve power to federal regions in Western Iraq is essential to winning back control of those territories.

But supporting political reconciliation in Baghdad is not enough. US Central Command should assemble a task force led by a three-star officer familiar with special operations and intelligence. Its sole task: taking the fight against the Islamic State across Syria and Iraq. The United States should move aggressively to match the Islamic State’s operational tempo, agility, and resourcefulness.

By establishing nimble, adaptable refueling and logistical solutions in strategic locations throughout Iraq, and across the border in Syria, the United States can effectively target the Islamic State’s rudimentary logistical lines. Kurdish forces should be fully supported as the most effective troops on the ground, and provided with Javelin anti-tank missiles, armored personnel carriers, and night vision equipment. And it is critical that the United States eschew the ineffectual drone-centric strategy used in Yemen and Pakistan in favor of a manned air campaign that can cripple the Islamic State’s lines of communication, resupply, and wider logistical network. Throughout our air campaigns, it is crucial to pinpoint the location of each individual Islamic State camp and safe-house down to within a few feet to avoid inflicting civilian casualties that risk alienating the local populations whose cooperation will be vital to our success.

Fighting the Islamic State in Iraq is a no-brainer. However, without also dismantling the Islamic State in Syria, the group will continue to pose a grave security threat to the United States. But fighting the militant group in Syria must not mean offering de facto support for the Bashar Assad regime. A misleading binary choice between the Assad regime and the Islamic State has come to dominate narratives of the Syrian conflict but, far from being the lesser of two evils, the Assad regime facilitated the emergence of the Islamic State. The appalling mass murders of innocent civilians in Syria has been a great radicalizing force that has reverberated around the Muslim world and has motivated a new generation of radical militants. Doubling down on Assad will not defeat Islamist militancy, it will fuel it.

The latest developments in Iraq have demonstrated that intensive and forceful political engagement in crises overseas can lead to progress. The Obama administration must now finish the job by building international momentum to confront and defeat the Islamic State in Iraq, while at the same time supporting the creation of an inclusive new government Iraqi government that can address the political grievances at the heart of this conflict.

Nussaibah Younis is a senior research associate at the Project on Middle East United States. Robert Caruso served in the office of the secretary of defense, the US Navy, and the state department.

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Nussaibah Younis Discusses the Arming of Iraqi Kurds on BBC Radio 5 Live

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Nussaibah Younis Discusses the Resignation of Prime Minister Maliki on BBC News 24

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Nussaibah Younis on Background Briefing with Ian Masters

We begin with the apparent unraveling of Iraq as Shiite militias answer the call from their clerics to defend Baghdad and the holy shrines from the lightning advance of the ISIS insurgents who have taken major cities in the north and are now on the outskirts of the capitol. Dr. Nussaibah Younis, an International Security Program Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School joins us to discuss her recent article at the New York Times, “The Army Alone Can’t Save Iraq” and, assuming that it is not too late, that military aid alone will not be enough to stem the tide of Sunni Jihadists unless political grievances are deal with by the Iraqi government that has alienated and marginalized Sunnis.

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Iraq: The real battle is to persuade Sunnis they can be truly equal citizens

Published in The Observer

The revival of civil war in Iraq is not about ancient sectarian hatreds – that is what the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Isis – wants you to think. It is a hardcore ideological group exploiting the political disaffection of one community to stoke sectarian war. Iraq’s broken political system and the failure of its political elite to prioritise reconciliation over personal gain has led to a collapse of faith in the political system, leaving Iraqvulnerable to this sectarian propaganda. But if the Iraqi government buys the Isis narrative and treats Sunnis as implacable opponents of Shias, Isis will have succeeded in stoking the civil war it has so desired.

Ever since the formation of Iraq as a nation-state by European powers, it has been easy to dismiss it as an artificial country that was bound to fail. A Sunni elite was installed to govern over a majority Shia population and a restive Kurdish community that had fought and lost the battle for independence. But throughout Iraqi history, the importance of identity has waxed and waned according to changing political realities.

At times, when Iraq’s political battle lines divided communists from nationalists, and nationalists from Ba’athists, identity seemed incidental and even passe. Many Iraqis grew up in households where it was rude to refer to people’s sectarian identity, and where intermarriage created large families of mixed religious practice.

However, at other times, when the presence of distinct ethnic and religious groups was seen as posing a threat to the political establishment, identity became more important. During the Iran-Iraq war, the Ba’athist government feared that Iraqi Shias would sympathise with their co-religionists in Iran and unleashed waves of repression against them.

When coalition forces stormed Iraq in 2003 they found a society devastated by decades of war, deprivation and brutal Ba’athist rule. The war itself deeply divided Iraqi society, pitting those who saw it as Iraq’s salvation against others who decried it as a neocolonial invasion.

The Shia and Kurdish communities, who had suffered most at the hands of the Ba’athist regime, tended to celebrate their entry into power, while the Sunnis, who had dominated Iraq’s power structures for generations, overwhelmingly rejected the new Iraq. Sunnis, and some Shias, fought against the presence of coalition troops. But this violence was quickly exploited by al-Qaida affiliates, some foreign and some Iraqi, who gained a foothold in despondent Sunni heartlands.

These hardcore ideologues began to target Shias in mass-casualty bomb attacks with the explicit desire to stoke civil war. They believed that a civil war in Iraq would force Sunni Muslim countries around the world to defend Sunnism, and somehow lead to the revival of the Islamic caliphate. These aims were antithetical to the beliefs of the vast majority of the Sunni population, but as more and more Shias were violently killed by Islamist militants, they began to fight back indiscriminately. The cycle of revenge led to a horrific civil war in which countless innocent Iraqis were slaughtered.

But that civil war ended. Iraqi Sunnis realised that al-Qaida in Iraq was an abominable entity that, by stoking civil conflict, was threatening to bring about the extermination of Iraq’s minority Sunni community. Together with the support of coalition forces, local Iraqi Sunni leaders fought al-Qaida and won, driving them out of the country or into hiding. Iraqi Sunnis began to vote and to field candidates in the parliamentary elections. Iraqi politicians started to brand themselves as cross-sectarian nationalists who wanted to build a unified Iraq.

The parliamentary elections in 2010 represented the apex of hope for a new future in which Iraqis would live and prosper together. The prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated State of Law coalition went head to head against former prime minister Ayad Allawi’s Sunni-dominated Iraqiya coalition. Iraqiya won and Sunnis were ecstatic. It had seemed impossible that a largely Sunni coalition could win at the ballot box, and the prospect of a new government that reflected the priorities of Iraq’s Sunni community was mesmerising. It wasn’t to be. Maliki outmanoeuvred the winning coalition and managed to stay prime minister.

Isis is not the army of Iraq’s Sunnis, it is an extraordinarily dangerous entity that is exploiting the alienation of Iraq’s Sunni community to provoke a second civil war in Iraq. Retracing the terrible path trodden by al-Qaida in 2005 and 2006, Isis is once again inflicting mass-casualty attacks on Shia civilians and threatening Shia shrines. Now thousands of young Shia men are joining Shia militias and, unless dramatic action is taken by the Iraqi government, it is only a matter of time before unfettered sectarian bloodletting begins.

Although it is extraordinarily difficult at a time when Iraqis are under attack, the Iraqi government needs to resist the sectarian Isis narrative and to recognise that Isis is distinct from Iraq’s Sunni community. Iraqi Sunnis don’t want to be governed by Isis, they don’t support the massacre of Shia civilians and they don’t want another civil war. But they also don’t believe there is a place for them in Maliki’s Iraq. Iraq’s politicians must persuade them that a future does exist in which Sunnis can participate as equal citizens in an Iraqi state, and that this is something worth fighting for.

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