Sometimes it pays to be counterintuitive. To save Iraq from total collapse and prevent it from turning into a terrorist haven, America may need to find ways to cooperate with Sunni groups opposed to the Sunni jihadis who now occupy vast swaths of the country’s north. And yes, as odd as it may seem, ways do exist.
The jihadi group now known as the Islamic State (IS) has made major advances in Iraq since June. Its ever-growing cadre of mostly foreign Sunni fighters now surrounds Baghdad from nearly all sides and is threatening to capture the outskirts of Kurdish-controlled areas in the north.
But by far the most successful conquests by IS—formerly known as Daesh, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—were made in western Iraq, where the foreign jihadis found allies among a local Sunni population that has been repeatedly snubbed and frustrated by the central Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. (Al-Maliki withdrew his candidacy for a third term as prime minister on August 14.)
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Can moderate Iraqi Sunnis join with the U.S. and other outside powers to repel the foreign extremists, as they did in the 2006-2008 surge led by General David Petraeus?
“Old contacts call me to say, We can beat these guys,” a Western diplomat who was stationed in Iraq for several years told me. The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that many Sunni Iraqis abhor the jihadis and have allied with them only out of necessity because they felt alienated from al-Maliki’s government.
To fight against IS, the diplomat added, these moderate Sunnis will need American arms and air support. But mostly, he said, they want better political representation in Baghdad than they have been given since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003.
Since IS began conducting its murderous campaign of ethnic cleansing against Christians and Yazidis, Washington has begun to grapple in earnest with the menace these jihadis present not only to Iraq but to the whole of the Middle East and the West. In early August, dozens of American advisers landed in Iraq, and the U.S. Air Force has supplied aerial support to the Kurdish army—the peshmerga—to push back against the IS advance on Kurdish territories.
In addition, America has started delivering rifles and ammunition to the peshmerga, though all have declined, to date, to supply some of the heavier hardware the Kurds have long asked for, including armor-piercing weapons that can penetrate and destroy the American armored vehicles the jihadis inherited from the fleeing Iraqi army. By mid-August, the cooperation yielded results, as Kurds, with U.S. air support, said they captured the strategic Mosul Dam from IS fighters.
Many Iraq watchers now say that a similar effort at cooperation with local fighters must also be conducted in Sunni areas where IS is now based, as the peshmerga will not fight there. The Obama administration, however, is hesitant.
A former American official in Iraq said he had tried for four weeks to arrange meetings between U.S. officials and his old Sunni contacts in the Anbar and Nineveh provinces, such as the tribal leader Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleiman al-Dulaimi. His pleas were ignored. “I can’t even get an answer, much less a yes,” the former official said.
Zalmay Khalilzad, who was the American ambassador in Iraq from 2005 to 2007, said, “It would be a mistake to say that we have no contacts [at all] with the Sunnis.” Several recent meetings between American officials and Sunni leaders were held in the Kurdish city of Erbil and in neighboring Jordan, he noted. But he said “the level of interaction and the intensity of contact and knowledge” is not what it was during Petraeus’s successful surge.
That late stage in the Iraq War was marked by the defeat of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Sunni Iraqis who had grown tired of the AQI jihadis fought hard against them, and eventually, with American help, they chased them out of the country. Later, in Syria, where the civil war was raging, these same AQI foreign fighters reorganized, refortified themselves and turned themselves into ISIS, eventually returning to exploit the divisions in al-Maliki’s deeply fractured Iraq.
The final defeat of AQI by Petraeus was made possible only by the close cooperation between U.S. troops and the Iraqi Sunnis. At that time, Americans on the ground developed deep ties with the Sunni leaders, and those close bonds still exist.
“We knew them, we had these [U.S.] forces all over, so they’ve developed relations” with the locals, said Khalilzad. Of course, such relations can hardly be reprised today, since no one expects the U.S. to send troops back to Iraq. It would be hard to establish alliances in the Sunni areas that are similar to the ones the U.S. enjoyed before, he said.