The highest-ranking elected Sunni leader in Iraq painted a bleak picture of his nation’s future Thursday, telling an audience in Washington that without serious and quick reconciliation between sectarian political parties, the country could be swallowed by a war comparable to the one now raging in Syria.
“Iraq at this point is at a crossroads,” said Usama al-Nujayfi, the speaker of Iraq’s Council of Representatives and an influential voices in Baghdad, where Iraq’s federal government is dominated by parties aligned with the nation’s Shiite Prime Minister.
“God forbid,” said Mr. al-Nujayfi, “we will be moving toward something like the Syrian situation if the problems are not addressed in the right way.”
He noted that 2013 more than 9,000 people were killed in Iraq and more than 25,000 wounded — the “highest figure in the last 10 years.”
More pointedly, Mr. al-Nujayfi’s remarks, made during a speech at the Brookings Institution, come as the threat of a Sunni extremist takeover in western Iraq’s Anbar province has continued to mount.
News reports this week have suggested al Qaeda-connected fighters who seized key sections Fallujah in the province more than two weeks ago, are now spreading out and trying to enforce Islamist law over the city.
With fears growing that the situation could trigger an all-out civil war between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has yielded to pressure from the Obama administration to delay using the Iraqi military, which is dominated by Shiites, to mount full-scale assault on Anbar.
Mr. al-Maliki has also begun paying more secular Sunni tribesmen to fight back against the extremists in Fallujah.
But Mr. al-Nujayfi on Wednesday suggested the move may be too little too late — or that it must be expanded upon significantly and quickly if the Maliki government has any hope of forging a sustainable alliance with secular Sunni tribal leaders going forward.
He also said the rise of al Qaeda-linked groups in Anbar could most accurately be blamed on the Maliki government’s abandonment of previous alliances that U.S. military forces once nourished with those tribal leaders.
“In 2007 with the surge of American forces, some violence ended in the country and we set a plan to fight al Qaeda and the terrorist groups with the support of the Sunni clans in Anbar,” Mr. al-Nujayfi said.
“They were armed, financed and were promised they would be part of the Iraqi armed forces,” he said, adding that “the clans defeated al Qaeda” and “were able to bring stability back.”
“But after this victory, there was no follow-up on the promises that were given to them and they did not get their rights, for instance, to integrate into the [official Iraqi] armed forces, to get the salaries they need, to protect them from being targeted from the terrorists.”
Mr. al-Nujayfi added that from 2009 until just a few months ago, the secular Sunni militias in Anbar were “almost completely destroyed,” and that al Qaeda “came back stronger than before,” preying on the frustration being felt in the region toward the government in Baghdad.
The situation is such, he said, that many in region have been “almost pushed into the arms of the terrorists.”
In essence, Mr. al-Nujayfi’s assessment ran parallel to that offered by another top Sunni political leader, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who appeared in Washington last week with the assertion that the government of Mr. al-Maliki has alienated Sunnis to a point of fomenting sectarian violence.
Mr. al-Mutlaq also called on the Obama administration to do more to help Iraq, which he said had been “destroyed” by the decade-long U.S. military occupation.