Insider views on ISIS in Iraq

Screen shot 2015-07-31 at 4.16.02 PMOn Thursday, Stimson hosted a discussion in cooperation with the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) entitled Threat Of ISIS In Iraq: Views From The Ground. Speakers included: Stimson Middle East Fellow Geneive Abdo, , Brookings Non-resident Fellow Christine van den Toorn, AUIS Director of the center for Development and Natural Resources Bilal Wahab.  Three AUIS students, Noaf, Anas, and Khusai were featured in recorded videos. Lukman Faily, Iraqi Ambassador to the US, also spoke.  Stimson President Ellen Laipson moderated.

AUIS was founded in 2006. Students come from many religious backgrounds and Iraqi regions, as well as from neighboring countries.

Van den Toorn, explained that Iraq is more complicated than the discourse in DC.  The students from AUIS explained the situation in their regions.

Noaf is from Sinjar.  He and his 6 brothers all finished college.  He was supposed to study in Mosul after high school but had worked as a translator for US troops and is Yazidi, so he feared for his safety. He got a scholarship to study at AUIS and graduated with a degree in Business Administration.

Noaf (top left) is from Sinjar (top right), Ninewah Province (bottom left), Iraq (bottom right).
Noaf (top left) is from Sinjar (top right), Ninewah Province (bottom left), northwestern Iraq (bottom right).

ISIS still threatens Sinjar and tried to take back his village, Hanasour, two days ago.  The northern part of Sinjar was liberated from ISIS five months ago and many different actors are defending the area.  Military leaders believe a unified force could liberate the rest of Sinjar in 3-4 days. Noaf wants autonomy for Sinjar with NATO protection.  The people of Sinjar have lost trust in both Iraqi and KRG security forces; an international force would allow the IDPs to return.  Sinjar has agriculture and oil, so it could have its own economy.

Anas was born in Samarra, Saladin Governorate.  His father had refused to join the Ba’ath Party, was forced into the military, and died.  He graduated with an engineering degree from AUIS.

Anas (top left) is
Anas (top left) is from Samarra (top right), Saladin Province (bottom left), north-central Iraq (bottom right).

The economy in Samarra is bad because Samarra is controlled by the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). Last year, ISIS entered half of the city, but left the next day. ISIS is now 20 km away.  Samarra is 100% Sunni, but about 90% of the security forces are Shia.  Some PMUs are good; others are criminals.  Locals are hesitant to join the PMUs because some of those who fought Al Qaeda in 2006 were later arrested by the government.  The PMUs should transfer control to the local police.  Tikrit has been liberated, but most residents haven’t returned because the PMUs have arrested some returnees.  The PMUs, not the government, decide who can and cannot return to liberated areas.  Returnees to some villages have found homes and shops destroyed and Shia flags flying.  There is a misconception that Sunnis support ISIS,  but ISIS destroyed Sunni regions.  ISIS killed two of his uncles.  The problem is that Iraq’s central government treats Sunnis as enemies.

Khusai was raised in Baghdad, but his parents are from Najaf.  He finished high school in 2008 when the security situation was terrible.  He went to AUIS to study in a safe environment.  He works in finance in Baghdad.

Khusai (top left) is from Baghdad (top right/bottom left), central Iraq (bottom right).
Khusai (top left) is from Baghdad (top right/bottom left), central Iraq (bottom right).

The security situation was very bad before Ramadan in Baghdad.  During Ramadan, the situation improved and the curfew was lifted.  ISIS will not invade Baghdad because it is protected by the PMUs. But Baghdadis fear the PMUs because they are armed criminals.  Fortunately, their presence in the city center has recently decreased.

Southern Iraq remains safe, but some residents resent the costly war.  Additionally, the IDPs in the south are causing higher prices and competition for jobs.  But most southerners still believe in one Iraq, and want to liberate the northern cities, because of Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa.

Wahab said that centralization in Iraq has been a failure.  There have been attempts to create an Iraqi identity, through both force and co-optation using oil wealth.  The 2003 invasion offered the opportunity to decentralize, but centralization has been stronger.  In response, the KRG is pushing for statehood.  Basra is also looking for more autonomy and some in Kirkuk talk of a distinct Kirkuk region.

The government controls 50% of the economy.  The economic power of the executive branch makes it hard to hold it accountable.  The collapse of oil prices hurt the economy, which suffers if the government cannot inject enough cash into it.  Government expenses have also increased because of military costs.

Without a comprehensive, international strategy to defeat ISIS, regional powers and domestic players will continue to use the crisis to their advantage, e.g., the PMUs.  Kurdish society is less united than before as it argues over who deserves the credit for holding back ISIS.  Within Iraq, both political and economic reform are needed.

Abdo spoke about how religious identity in Iraq has nearly replaced the identity of Iraqi citizenship.  The fight for a united Iraq is true more in theory than in reality.  Religion is being used for political gain in Iraq, as it has been in Lebanon and Bahrain. Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa asking his followers to take up arms is rare in Shi’ism and shows urgency, but Sistani can no longer control the PMUs.  The Shia have been radicalized too.

Screen shot 2015-07-31 at 4.12.27 PM
Ambassador Faily

Ambassador Faily noted that all sides in Iraq blame others.  This is a vicious cycle, with no magic solution.  Everyone has agreed to decentralization, but getting there necessitates a dialogue towards a common strategy. ISIS is an existential threat to Iraq and is a problem for all of Iraq’s communities.  Dealing with ISIS will take time, but respect for the integrity of the state is key.  Those who want power at the state’s expense will harm everyone.  The US plays an important supportive role but should give Iraq breathing space to improve its politics.

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