In Iraq–ISIS is Symptom, the Problem is Worse | Charles Duelfer

In Iraq–ISIS is Symptom, the Problem is Worse

In Iraq, Washington is treating a symptom and avoiding the underlying problem.  Washington is busy with ISIS in Iraq and reporting substantial progress. On June 28th, Ambassador Brett McGurk reported to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ( on progress the US and Iraq are making in taking back territory from ISIS control.  But, the problems of what goes on in territories “liberated” are glossed over.

A very different picture is presented by journalist Jane Arraf reporting from Falluja three days later for PBS NewsHour (

In discussions with many Sunni leaders, it is clear to me that there is a high probability of enormous turmoil in Iraq once ISIS is pushed back. Unreported in the McGurk testimony is the seething war between Sunni groups and the Iranian backed Shia militias who have the bulk of the weapons and have, in effect, been conducting sectarian cleansing in some territories they have expelled ISIS from. Prime Minister al Abadi does not seem to be able to deal with this. His actions are limited by the Iraqi parliament and Iran. And if he falls, a strong pro-Iranian actor, Hadi al-Amiri is positioned to be a strong contender to follow–which would make matters even worse.

The Administration is publicly focussing narrowly on ISIS. They are enjoying some success in rolling ISIS back in Iraq. But then what? Iraq is going to get much much worse on its current path. And Iran is positioned to expand its influence even more. It appears as though the Obama team is taking ownership of the ISIS problem, but trying to keep separate responsibility for what happens in Iraq–that was Bush’s problem. If Iraq does disintegrate into sectarian conflict in the next year, it will be hard not to see that as part of the Obama legacy.

At this stage the US needs to broaden its dialogue with more key Sunni players, including some not participating in Baghdad. The politics of Baghdad do not reflect the realities outside Baghdad (like Washington and the rest of country, but worse).

If we are on the precipice of “doing Mosul” as seems to be the case (reinforced by Ash Carter’s current visit to Iraq), then to avoid chaos after Mosul, Sunnis groups need to have a voice and consensus about who runs Mosul afterwards…among other things. Is there an answer to the question, then what?

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