Iraq faces existential crisis as Sunni insurgency gains ground


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JUDY WOODRUFF: As militants from the Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant continued their march toward Baghdad and widened the group’s areas of operation and control across Syria and Iraq, talk in Washington turned to whether the U.S. should respond and how.

At midday, the president spoke in the Oval Office after a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. He said Iraq would need more assistance, not only from the U.S., but other nations as well.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I don’t rule out anything, because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or — or Syria, for that matter.

In our consultations with the Iraqis, there will be some short-term, immediate things that need to be done militarily and our national security team is looking at all the options. But the basic principle obviously is, is that we, like all nations, are prepared to take military action whenever our national security is threatened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Later, administration officials said that all options didn’t include U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq.

The New York Times reported this morning that Iraq had asked the Obama administration last month to conduct airstrikes on militants in Western Iraq, but was denied.

At the Capitol earlier in the day, House Speaker John Boehner had a harsh, direct appraisal of White House policy to date.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, Speaker of the House: It’s not like we haven’t seen this problem coming for over a year. And it hasn’t — it’s not like we haven’t seen over the last five or six months these terrorists moving in taking control of Western Iraq. Now they have taken control of Mosul. They’re a 100 miles from Baghdad. And what’s the president doing? Taking a nap.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That anger was echoed on the Senate floor from Arizona Republican John McCain. He laid blame squarely on the withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011, pushed for by the president, amid failed talks with the government of Nouri al-Maliki for a further U.S. presence.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R, Ariz.: To declare that a conflict is over doesn’t mean that it necessarily is over. A takeover of Iraq in the Iraq-Syria area, which is now the largest concentration of al-Qaida in history, is a direct threat to the United States of America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But elsewhere on the Hill, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said it was the original decision to invade, by the George W. Bush administration, supported by McCain and Boehner, that was at fault. She said she opposed further U.S. military action in Iraq.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, Minority Leader: It’s just not a good idea. And what’s next? That’s what the American people would want to know. What’s next? I think this represents the failed policy that took us down this path 11 years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Vice President Biden spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki earlier today, and according to a White House statement, he told Maliki that the U.S. is prepared to continue to intensify and accelerate security support and cooperation with Iraq.

American officials say three planeloads of Americans are being evacuated from an Iraqi air base in Sunni territory north of Baghdad to escape threats from the fast-moving insurgency.

Meanwhile, the Iraq government launched airstrikes on insurgent positions in and around Mosul.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how are Iraq’s leaders in Baghdad viewing this crisis?

For that, I spoke a short time ago to Jane Arraf. She’s a freelance correspondent for Al-Jazeera English and “The Christian Science Monitor.”  She also was in Irbil.

Jane Arraf, thank you very much for talking with us.

How is the government in Baghdad dealing with all this? We see reports that a large number of government troops are simply laying down their arms in the face of these insurgents.

JANE ARRAF, Iraq-based journalist: It’s absolutely scrambling.

One of the things that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has tried to do, along with trying to form a new government, because this now is a government in the making, is essentially he has tried to get parliament to agree to declare a state of emergency across the country. Parliament has declined to do that.

They feel he is using all of this for political gain, to further expand his powers. So it’s really a political crisis on top of a huge security crisis. He’s reaching out to the United States, as you have seen, and he’s reaching out to Kurdish leaders to try to solve this.

But this is such an intractable problem, and the scale of it, the consequences of it, the potential repercussions of losing Iraq’s second biggest city are absolutely huge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there any question there, Jane, about how serious a threat this insurgency poses?

JANE ARRAF: There’s very little question, because these people are not going to go away. In the space of four days, they managed to take over Iraq’s second biggest city, one of the major cities in importance, as well as in terms of size.

So, now we have a situation where, according to people who are still coming out to try to come to the Kurdish areas, still coming to that checkpoint just 20 miles from Mosul, they say that the city is now completely in control of this group that has been — that essentially is a reincarnation of al-Qaida.

But the group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is working as well with tribal leaders, some tribal leaders from the Fallujah and Ramadi area of al-Anbar and what appears to be quite a large component of fighters who have come directly from Anbar province.

So this isn’t just a foreign external problem. This is a domestic problem as well. And it’s one that the Iraqi government has been dealing with, although not in this dramatic a form, for many, many months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, talking to people in the government, is it your sense that they believe they can hold this off without U.S. military help?

JANE ARRAF: They’re pretty much desperate for U.S. military help.

The problem is that that U.S. military help, whether more Hellfire missiles or drone strikes, isn’t really going to solve this. At the heart of this is a country that’s being torn apart and it’s being torn apart largely because large parts of this country don’t feel that they have a say in their own future.

They don’t feel that they can walk in the streets without being discriminated against by Iraqi security forces. One of the things that has really become clear in the past few days, again, as people flood from Mosul — and half-a-million Iraqis have left Mosul — is that there is a large residual anger against the Iraqi security forces in many parts of these cities.

That’s going to make this even harder to solve. It’s not just a military security problem. It’s a political crisis as well, and one that really is — it’s really hard to see where this will end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jane, finally, we know the Obama administration has been urging Prime Minister Maliki for some time to reach out to the Sunni leadership, the Sunni population in Iraq. Is there any sense on the part of his administration that they’re now prepared to do that or that they acknowledge it’s been a mistake not to?

JANE ARRAF: Well, Judy, there are a few problems there.

One is that it’s not just a monolithic Sunni community. Who does he reach out to? It’s a very divided Sunni political class. And we’re seeing that in the problems of forming a new government. The Iraqi government seems to feel like it’s fighting for its life.

This is a fight purely against al-Qaida and the latest incarnation of al-Qaida. There isn’t a huge sense there when you talk to Iraqi government officials that they feel that they need to make concessions. In fact, the instinct here, as we have seen, is really pretty much always first to use force and then to talk later.

As for what is happening in Mosul, and not just Mosul, but Tikrit, Samarra, and other cities, is it continuing to grow, and again not just a security problem, but essentially what many people fear is the disintegration of this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jane Arraf on the ground in Irbil, Iraq, Jane, we thank you.

JANE ARRAF: Thank you so much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to the United States’ options.

We turn to two men with extensive experience dealing with Iraq.

James Jeffrey was U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012. He’s now a distinguished visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Feisal Istrabadi was Iraq’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations from 2004 to 2007. He’s now a professor of the practice of international law and diplomacy at Indiana University, Bloomington.

And we welcome you both.

Ambassador Istrabadi, let me start with you.

Do you share what we just — I guess the perception we just got from Jane Arraf, that this is a country that may be disintegrating and that this is every bit as much as a political as it is a military crisis?

FEISAL ISTRABADI, Indiana University: I do.

I think much of — I agree with much of what Jane said now. Iraq is facing an existential crisis, a moment when the Iraqi political class and the broader polity of Iraq have to answer the questions, do we as Iraqis want to live together in one country, or do we not? And what are the ramifications of answering the question one way or another?

The root of the solution of this problem has been for years — and not just in the last four or five days — a political solution, and the current government in Iraq has simply failed to live up to the expectation that it could find a political solution, because, as Jane has just said, it seeks a military solution first.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So Ambassador Jeffrey, if that’s the case, does it really matter about this conversation back and forth about military help or not from the U.S.?

JAMES JEFFREY, The Washington Institute: Absolutely.

I agree with everything the ambassador and Jane have said, but the point is right now we’re not facing some kind of long-term campaign of reconciliation or even stability, as we did for years in Iraq. We’re facing a military challenge.

As the ISIL forces seize all of Sunni Iraq, Sunni Arab Iraq, which is one-third of the country in the west, they’re in a position to encircle Baghdad with its six or seven million people, mainly Shia Arabs, and cut it off from electricity, oil, water, everything it needs.

And that is an extraordinary threat. That can pull in the Iranians, that can cause the Kurds to leave. That’s a military threat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so what do you think needs to be done?

JAMES JEFFREY: In order to avoid Iranians coming in, Kurds going out and possibly extraordinary disaster, the U.S. needs to put, as the president seems to be suggesting he’s considering, airpower in, as he did in Libya, effective against mobile columns, as we have seen in your film clips.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ambassador Istrabadi, if that’s what happens, if there is airpower, does that change the balance of what’s going on there?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: I don’t think so.

The fact of the matter is the United States, commencing in 2003, was never able to get ahold of an increasing insurgency as it was building up in 2006 — 2005, 2006, and 2007. The way that General Petraeus was able to make a — the violence decrease in Iraq was by negotiating a series of political deals with Sunni tribal sheiks and other respect figures in the Sunni community.

The current government of Iraq, the prime minister of Iraq reneged on all of those promises. Without these political deals, there is, in my opinion, no military solution to the problem. If the United States, in Iraq for 10 years, with all the weaponry and all the intelligence assets that it has, was unable to defeat the insurgency without political resolution — or political deals, the Iraqis will not be able to do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you heard Ambassador Jeffrey say, if nothing is done, we’re looking at a dire change of circumstances.

FEISAL ISTRABADI: I understand that.

And, once again, I say that the Iraqis, I think, are going to have to decide the existential question of, to be or not to be? The Iraqi army does indeed have to make a stand. It has to stanch the bleeding. I understand that need to make some military progress.

But what is airpower going to do? Are you going to bomb the cities? Are you going to bomb Tikrit? Are you going to bomb Mosul? Whole cities have fallen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me — well, let’s put that question…

FEISAL ISTRABADI: I don’t see that there’s a military solution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me put that question then to Ambassador Jeffrey.

JAMES JEFFREY: Well, first of all, I disagree.

The ambassador is right. The United States, with some help from the Iraqis, was able to reach out to Sunnis in ’06-’07, and that’s the kind of solution that the ambassador is recommending and I agree with. But that is not what is going to happen in the next week or so.

The Americans up until that time may not have succeeded in curbing or ending the Sunni insurgency or the Shia, Muqtada al-Sadr insurgency, but what we did do was keep major cities out of the hands of these people with American firepower, and that’s what’s lacking now. Without American firepower on the ground, city after city is going to fall, and you’re going to have a catastrophe the likes of which the Middle East has not seen in a long time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m assuming a debate, something like this, is going on inside the Obama administration right now.

Ambassador Istrabadi, if — you’re saying you believe there is the political will on the part of Prime Minister Maliki to do what you’re saying, what you’re suggesting?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: I do not.

He’s been the prime minister for eight years. I have seen no evidence that he is prepared to engage in any process of — any meaningful process of reconciliation. Having meetings, which he is perfectly willing to do, is not reconciliation. He is unwilling to share power.

He has become, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, a part of the problem, not a part of the solution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what has to happen?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: We need new leadership in Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And who? Who?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Let the Iraqis decide.

Look, this is a moment for the Iraqi political to — the Iraq political elites, who have just been reelected, this is a moment for them to grow up. This is a moment for them to realize that the stakes aren’t personal. This isn’t some personal dispute. The country is at stake. They need to rise to the challenge, and they need to do so now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Jeffrey.

JAMES JEFFREY: He’s absolutely right.

Over the longer term, that’s exactly the problem. And Ambassador Istrabadi has got a good solution to it, whether that is with an alternative to Maliki, or, frankly, a new Maliki, because the old one wasn’t all that helpful, remains to be seen.

But that’s weeks or months ahead. Right now, we have a military situation. And if we don’t stop these people moving ahead, there will be no parliament, there will be no government. There will be catastrophe all up and down Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, we hear you both. And, clearly, this is the kind of urgent situation we are watching constantly.

Ambassador Jeffrey, Ambassador Istrabadi, we thank you.

JAMES JEFFREY: Thank you.

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Thank you.

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