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Understanding the Importance of Iraqi Unity

Understanding the Importance of Iraqi Unity

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This article by ASP Adjunct Fellow Asha Castleberry describes her impressions of Iraq from her time in the Middle East. 

My return home from the Middle East confronted me with a major U.S. foreign policy debate: how to counter the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIL), also known as “Daesh.” In DC, policy critics are overwhelmingly fixated on the Obama Administration’s alleged lack of strategy, but actions in Iraq by Iraqis will be the deciding factor in this fight. To that end, national unity in Iraq will be of paramount importance.  Based on my recent experiences in Iraq, it is vital that the U.S. and key allies in the region help build confidence in the Iraqis to achieve national unification in order to defeat Daesh.

Since the beginning of the American-led air campaign, Baghdad, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), and Sunni tribal groups alike have finally realized that cohesion is key to ultimately defeating the Daesh threat.  Last April, Iraqis saw the importance of national unity when they won victory against Daesh in Tikrit (the home of Saddam Hussein). Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi conducted effective joint operations between the government of Iraq and Sunni tribal groups in order to gain victory in Tikrit.

Local news coverage after the operation showed Al-Abadi marching around the Sunni dominated area with the Iraqi national flag in his hand and winning the hearts and minds of the Sunni Tribal groups.  This key milestone also demonstrated that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) did not need to rely solely on the Shia Militias, but could instead work with a unified force—all boosting confidence in joint coordination. The upcoming major offensive in Mosul will depend on such confidence in joint operations. It will be vital that ISF, Peshmerga Forces, and Sunni tribal groups work together in order to win back the second largest city in Iraq.

Despite sectarian strife and operational setbacks, Iraq is still trying to achieve national unity.  Since Al-Abadi was appointed, he has pushed leadership changes that would empower the Sunni community and the KRG, as well as strengthening relations between these groups and the central government in Baghdad. His efforts have resulted in a historic oil deal with the KRG—an unprecedented agreement as opposed to former PM Nouri al-Maliki’s attempted referendum to completely separate KRG from Iraq.  Al-Abadi also continues to advocate passage of the National Guard law, another vehicle to empower the Sunni tribal groups that is supported by a top Sunni politician, Speaker of Parliament Salim al-Joubari.

Moving forward, Iraq should continue these efforts in cooperation in order to decisively win and hold key areas in Al-Anbar Province.  The recent loss of Ramadi represents a missed opportunity for the government of Iraq to fully train and equip various internal security forces.  The Iraqi Ministry of Interior, which is currently Shia-run, failed to maintain cooperation and coordination with local police commanders and Sunni tribal groups. Effective coordination with these two groups (along with a supplement of 450 U.S. troops) helps cover the absence of an existing national guard.  The presence of U.S. troops can also help address critical shortfalls like weapon deliveries to Sunni tribal groups, countering the reasons for these groups to join Daesh.

KRG President Massoud Barzani has encouraged people not to flee Iraq, and instead to stay in the country and fight the threat. The American Congress made a move parallel to Barzani’s comments by voting against a resolution that would have permitted the U.S. to arm the Kurdish Peshmerga forces directly without going through Baghdad. Authorizing the U.S. to provide weapons to the Peshmerga Forces would certainly undermine national unity in Iraq. At an Atlantic Council event, Barzani emphasized the need for unity:

“Confronting ISIS needs…unity among all of the people of Iraq.  The unity of Iraq depends on the peoples of Iraq—how democratic Iraq will be, how far they will be convinced about peaceful co-existence—because that unity is voluntary and not compulsory.”

The country will not be same post-ISIL crisis in any outcome, but a divided Iraq will only cause more instability in the region.  Leading regional players simply do not want to see Iraq succumb to internal divisions.  Currently, Al-Abadi is promoting his vision for Iraqi unity in the region; to support him, key Gulf Cooperation Council nations such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait opened embassies in Iraq. Al-Abadi has been very clear that Iraqis do not want to see their country divided. During his visit in Saudi Arabia, Al-Abadi underscored the importance of not turning the war against ISIL into a regional conflict.

The Obama Administration must completely support Iraqi national unification. As part of its national security strategy, the U.S. (along with key regional allies) should continue this support in order to ultimately defeat Daesh in Iraq.  To be sure, the new administration in 2017 must always take into account that Iraqis will work at their own pace to achieve national unification.  Achieving peace, political stability, and rebuilding a strong unified military will be a slow process in a divided society, but only time will tell if Iraqi public opinion has the appetite to achieve national unification on a long-term basis.