How to keep Iraq from burning

On May 11, the Center for Middle East Policy hosted a conversation with two influential Sunni leaders from Iraq on the country’s future. Moderated by Senior Fellow Kenneth Pollack, the discussion featured Rafe al-Issawi, who served as deputy prime minister and minister of finance under former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and Atheel al-Nujayfi, governor of Ninewah Province, whose capital, Mosul, is controlled by the Islamic State.  

Dismantle the militias, institutionalize the security forces

Rafe al-Issawi began by asserting that Iraq’s Shiite militias—many of which are backed by Iran—are equally brutal as the (Sunni) Islamic State forces which they are fighting. While the Shiite militias may help defeat IS, Issawi warned that it will result in a fragmented Iraq ruled by militias and warlords. He advocated dismantling the militias and replacing them with government forces that recruit individual members, both Sunni and Shiite, rather than absorbing entire militias into the official cadres.

Issawi presented his vision of a new counterinsurgency approach, which he described as a modified version of General David Petraeus’s model.  His plan would establish “joint committees” composed of representatives from Iraq’s central government, U.S. advisors, and local forces, restructure Iraq’s army into a national, non-sectarian fighting force, and recruit and train Sunni (and Kurdish) fighters as a national guard. 

Issawi argued that all resources should be devoted to unifying Iraqis to fight against the Islamic State, but he also emphasized that creating robust, inclusive political institutions in Iraq is equally important.

Federalism, decentralization of power, and the constitution

Governor Atheel al-Nujayfi offered his vision for Iraq’s post-Islamic State political landscape. Although adamant that Iraq should remain unified, Nujayfi recommended decentralization as outlined in the Iraqi constitution and called for significant provincial autonomy. He explained, “I believe authority in Iraq should be split up, but not Iraq itself.” Nujayfi offered the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as a model.

Issawi agreed that the solutions for building a strong, stable, democratic Iraq are already contained in the constitution; the problem, he said, is that the constitution is not being respected and implemented. “There is no shortage of the right ideas” in Iraq, he said. What is needed is “a real action plan, not just promises.”   

Reconciliation, amnesty, and compensation

Issawi lamented that when it comes to Iraq’s political institutions, “Everything needs to be restored. Everything is damaged. We have to rebuild again.” Reconciliation, especially between Shiite and Sunni communities, is a critical piece of the rebuilding project. However, Issawi warned that it will take time and will require confidence-building measures to restore trust, including amnesty for Sunnis who allied with the Islamic State as a means of protection. Finally, Issawi explained that humanitarian aid and financial compensation for the thousands of refugees and internally-displaced persons (IDPs) produced by this latest conflagration is essential for Iraq to stabilize itself.

America’s role

Issawi listed four ways the United States can help Iraq toward a more stable future:

  • Help dismantle the militias and rebuild the national security forces;
  • Enable the rapid arming of Sunnis and Kurds via the “joint committees”;
  • Support the creation of a national guard;
  • Provide financial support to help compensate the thousands of refugees and IDPs.

Issawi said that Iraq’s Sunnis are Washington’s greatest potential allies in the fight against the Islamic State. He declared, “I came [here today] not as a politician but as a man warning his allies that there’s a burning Iraq. Come to extinguish it.”

The future is key

In the end, all the discussants agreed that overcoming Iraq’s current challenges will require commitment to a unified, inclusive, and democratic future. “Is democracy a real solution?” asked Issawi. “Yes. Is democracy a real option? Yes. But it is fragile.” Ultimately, they argued that Iraq must develop political institutions that are capable of resolving its internal conflicts as well as preventing them from reigniting.