Former ambassador: Iraq ‘on the verge of becoming a failing state’

The fall of Ramadi this week is a serious setback and suggests Iraq is close to becoming a failing state and a safe haven for international terrorism – precisely what the U.S. has tried prevent for 12 years — said Feisal Istrabadi, founding director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at IU Bloomington.

Istrabadi, who served as Iraq’s ambassador and deputy permanent representative to the United Nations in 2004-07, is a professor of practice of international law and diplomacy in the IU Maurer School of Law and the School of Global and International Studies. He commented on the situation in Iraq in the wake of the Islamic State group’s capture of the Iraqi city of Ramadi this week.

What does the fall of Ramadi mean in the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIL?

Istrabadi“This is a strategic setback for the U.S. and for Iraq and for all countries in the region ostensibly fighting ISIL. It shows that 10 months after the U.S. began its bombing campaign and 11 months after ISIL captured Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, ISIL can still seize the initiative and rout Iraqi regular troops. ISIL now controls the resupply routes between Ramadi and its capital in Syria, Raqqa. Psychologically, as well on the ground, this is a major defeat.”

Why has the Iraqi army collapsed yet again?

“The destruction of the Iraqi army is the legacy of the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki; and whatever strategies have been put in place to rebuild that force have clearly not worked, as they are being implemented at the same time as the fighting is going on. In the meantime, regional powers have prioritized fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen over defeating ISIL.

How could the U.S. be more effective in its actions regarding Iraq?

“Iraqis have still not articulated a shared or compromised vision of Iraq. Last year, U.S. policy was that it would support a new Iraqi government if that government articulated a political vision for the country. That policy was, in my view, correct. Yet over the intervening year, U.S. and Iraqi policy has focused almost exclusively on the technical military issues. The recent U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council joint statement had a tip of the hat to political reconciliation, but there has been no articulated and sustained U.S. policy on genuine reconciliation and the rebuilding of an Iraqi polity to confront ISIL.

“In the absence of such a policy, a military confrontation with ISIL by itself will not suffice. Further, Iraq has moved beyond the stage of being merely manageable.  It requires the sustained and concentrated engagement of senior U.S. policy-makers. Finally, destroying and defeating ISIL — the announced U.S. policy in the region — will take significantly more resources than are currently pledged to the effort.”

U.S. officials have been saying that ISIL is on the ropes. How did they get it wrong?

“I believe U.S. officials are too focused on technical military issues — numbers of sorties, high-value targets killed — and not on a deteriorating situation in Iraq, which is on the verge of becoming a failing state. Indeed, Iraq is becoming what U.S. policy has sought to prevent since 2003:  A safe-haven for international terrorism.

“Optimism is not a policy. Let us recall Vice President Cheney said the insurgency in Iraq was in its last throes in 2004, 11 years ago. Calling ISIL a JV team fails to take into account its basic abilities that it can obviously field to good effect on the ground.  Again, there is inadequate engagement by the senior U.S. leadership with Iraq. The Iranian defense minister is in Baghdad today. Where are senior U.S. officials?”

Iraq has sent Shia militias to try to re-take Ramadi. Could that make things worse?

“Yes.  There have been serious allegations that some of the pro-Iranian militias have committed war crimes, including ethnic cleansing, in areas they have helped to liberate from ISIL.  Prime Minister al-Abadi is right to have called for investigations into these allegations. Now, however, given Ramadi’s fall, he also seems to have no choice but to send all available troops into the area. The Iraqi government needs to be much more active in delivering arms to local tribes and volunteers to fight ISIL.”

Can ISIL be defeated? What will it take?

“We already have a combination of U.S. air strikes, and Iraqi and Iranian involvement. I suggest the U.S. does need to invest more assets in taking on ISIL and it needs to speed up delivery of weapons to the government in Baghdad, while also assuring that Baghdad, in turn, adequately arms local fighters in Anbar and Mosul, as well as the Peshmerga in Iraqi Kurdistan. This fight will also require regional involvement, yet U.S. allies in the region have taken their eyes off the dangers that ISIL represents to the entire Middle East and international community in this ill-conceived campaign in Yemen.”

You can also watch recent interviews with Istrabadi on CNN Today and Al-Jazeera America.

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