'We Must Negotiate With Islamic State', Says Senior Mediator

Smoke raises behind an Islamic State flag after Iraqi security forces and Shiite fighters took control of Saadiya in Diyala province from Islamist State militants, November 24, 2014. Stringer/Reuters

When Padraig O'Malley says we must talk to Islamic State, he's speaking from experience.

A seasoned mediator, O'Malley brought together warring parties in Iraq at the height of the sectarian conflict in 2007 and 2008, resulting in an agreement that formed the basis for political reconciliation in Iraq and helped curb the violence.

He did this with the aid of negotiators from South Africa, and from Northern Ireland, where he had been instrumental in organizing the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended 30 years of sectarian conflict.

"A way in time must be found to talk to Islamic State. You simply will not wipe it out. It'll just re-emerge in a different form," he said in a telephone interview from Boston, Massachusetts, where he is a professor.

"I don't think we in the West, or maybe anybody, fully understands the phenomenon of Islamic State, and the degree of its sophistication in attracting young people from all over the world."

O'Malley, who is John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston, is originally from Dublin and has four decades of experience as a mediator.

He quoted a recent opinion poll carried out in six Arab countries by the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, which found that Palestinians were the strongest supporters of IS.

This is striking because IS is focused on establishing a caliphate and has no particular eye on destroying Israel – and the finding could open a Pandora's box, O'Malley said.

"Is this because they (the Palestinians) have reached such a level of hopelessness regarding their own future that they will turn to anything? That IS can offer them something that will give meaning to their lives?"


Contact with IS would have to begin with intermediaries close to the group – wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Arab countries "who shovel money" to the fighters.

Persuading any armed group to talk to its enemies takes a long time. It begins with developing relationships in the community, building trust with people in the lower levels of all the warring parties, and gradually working your way up. "It's very personal," O'Malley said.

"Part of our problem in the West is that we think these things can be resolved quickly.

"Well that's fine, except that people in other parts of the world don't think that way, or we don't have a sufficient appreciation of the depth of the divisions among them," he said.

The Shia-Sunni divide in the Middle East, for example, runs very deep, he said.

The divide is one reason for Islamic State's rise, supported by Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq who feel disenfranchised by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.

"This divide is ugly, it goes way back in history, so there is no such thing as closing this with a few gestures or conferences, or huggings ... It's not the way human beings work."

He predicts that Iraq will not exist in its current form in 10 years' time. The Kurds, emboldened by their successes against Islamic State, will in the near future declare their independence from Iraq, he said.


The 2008 Helsinki Agreement that O'Malley helped broker was signed by political parties across the Sunni-Shia divide. It stipulates an end to corruption and to sectarianism in public office, among other things, but it was never implemented. The government has been dominated by Shia politicians, and Sunnis have felt increasingly marginalized.

"Like most things in Iraq at that point, while everybody shook hands, nothing ever happened with that agreement," he said.

O'Malley said he plans to return to Iraq when the recently appointed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is "more secure in his position", and to suggest that al-Abadi reconvene a meeting of all the signatories to the agreement – who include the current president, prime minister, members of the cabinet and leaders of all parties in the Iraq parliament.

"What I would be emphasizing is something that is very important to Arabs – their honor ... Will you honor your signature or will you not?"


Everyone coming out of conflict suffers from post-traumatic stress, which gives rise to a host of problems, ranging from domestic abuse to addictions and drinking, to a large segment of the population being dysfunctional, O'Malley said.

"On their own they cannot resolve their problems, because they're sick, they're actually sick. And no one is treating them," he said.

"You have to ask how many people in Iraq were killed as a result of the American intervention there in 2003 ... how many were displaced, how many were lost?"

"This country never thinks about them, never thinks of the effects that might have had on surviving members of those families."

O'Malley describes being stuck in traffic in Baghdad two years ago, because bombs had gone off that day.

The Iraqis in the car didn't complain about the bombs, what they complained about for two hours was being stuck in traffic, he said.

"They had so internalized bombings and death that ... it's no longer a significant cause for any kind of shock," he said.

In O'Malley's experience, one divided society is in the best position to help another. Which is why he asked South African negotiators to help those in Northern Ireland, and both groups to help the Iraqis.

And now he brings together divided cities – including Baghdad, Belfast, Jerusalem, Kirkuk, Mitrovica and Sarajevo – each year to listen to each other's experiences, in the Forum for Cities in Transition.

"Our small contribution is for them to recognize their sickness and to help each other."

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