- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2014

A leading Iraqi pollster said the Obama administration’s push for a cross-sectarian government in Baghdad will work only if it includes serious outreach to former Baathists, local Sunni tribal leaders and other armed groups who have the power to drive surging al Qaeda-minded extremists from the nation’s western and northern regions.

The assessment, by Munqith Dagher, a respected Sunni political adviser who has conducted hundreds of polls in Iraq over the past decade, came as U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry made a surprise visit to Baghdad Monday to push a message of inclusion on leaders of Iraq’s Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political factions to confront what he called an “existential threat” to the country.

Mr. Kerry called on the bitterly divided factions to honor commitments to seat a new Iraqi parliament next week before a burgeoning Sunni insurgency — which has become aligned with al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during recent weeks — crushes any hope for a lasting peace in Iraq.

“This is a critical moment for Iraq’s future,” Mr. Kerry said at a press conference on Monday evening in Baghdad. “It is a moment of decision for Iraq’s leaders, and it’s a moment of great urgency.”

The Obama administration did notch one minor diplomatic victory, with the Pentagon announcing a deal with the Baghdad government to provide legal protections for the American commandos the president has ordered to the country to assess and advise Iraqi forces, three years after efforts to reach a similar pact for a larger U.S. force failed. Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Monday that Iraq had given assurances for the short-term mission in a diplomatic note ensuring that troops will not be subject to Iraq’s judicial process.

Mr. Kerry, who flew into Baghdad Monday morning on a C-17 military aircraft, arrived just a day after Sunni militants had captured two key border posts, one along Iraq’s western frontier with Jordan and the other along the border with Syria.

The developments served only to increase pressure that has been mounting on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has faced growing calls to resign amid Iraq’s current security meltdown.

Mr. Kerry began Monday by meeting with Mr. al-Maliki, a Shiite accused by many in Iraq — and in Washington — of having ostracized the nation’s Sunni minority to the point of driving them into the hands of radical Islamist militias in recent months.

Iraqi officials briefed on the meeting said Mr. Kerry pushed back against Mr. al-Maliki’s appeal for the United States to unleash airstrikes against Sunni militant positions in Iraq and neighboring Syria.

According to the officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, the secretary of state told the Iraqi prime minister that great care and caution must be taken before U.S. strikes could be launched so as to avoid civilian casualties that could create the impression that Americans are simply targeting Iraq’s wider Sunni minority rather than specifically going after ISIL.

Mr. Kerry’s message suggests the Obama administration is holding out hope that Iraq’s more moderate Sunni groups may still be willing to disassociate themselves from ISIL — and perhaps even take a stand like that which many Sunnis embraced during the height of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq nearly a decade ago.

In 2005 and 2006, Sunni tribal leaders aligned with U.S. military forces in Iraq’s western Anbar province organized a movement known as the “Sunni Awakening” and the “Sons of Iraq,” which worked to rout al Qaeda fighters in the area.

Reviving the alliance

According to Mr. Dagher, the Iraqi pollster, the prospects are very real that such a movement could be quickly revived — if the right moves are made in Baghdad during the days and weeks ahead.

“The real power in the Sunni areas that have thrown off Baghdad’s control in recent weeks belongs not to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but to local, armed groups that include former Baathists, former Iraqi army [from the Saddam era] and local tribes,” said Mr. Dagher, who heads an influential research and polling outfit known as the Iraqi Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies, and who is visiting Washington this week.

If those disenfranchised secular Sunni groups are given “a seat at the table, they would band together to kick the extremist terrorists out of Iraq quickly — as the Awakening did in Anbar from 2008 to 2010,” said Mr. Dagher, who stressed that while ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is an Iraqi, most of his hard-core followers are foreign fighters who have flooded into Iraq under the al Qaeda banner.

Mr. Dagher asserted that there are actually fewer than 1,000 true ISIL fighters operating in Iraq and that the uprising of the past two weeks has depended heavily on the willingness of other Sunni factions to resist them in the name of the political leadership in Baghdad, despite a distaste for aligning with the extremists.

He cited recent polling conducted in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which Western news reports widely described as having falling to ISIL two weeks ago. One poll, Mr. Dagher said, showed that 80 percent of Sunnis in the city categorically reject ISIL.

While Iraq’s population is divided unevenly, with roughly 65 percent composed of Shiite Muslims and 30 percent Sunnis, Mr. Dagher said that other recent polling has shown the majority of both Sunnis and Shiites oppose partitioning the nation into separately governed states. Fears, he said, are just too great that such a move would only further inflame the already biting tensions between the two groups.

Senior U.S. officials cite a host of Sunni groups that have been fighting alongside ISIL. Some, such as the Islamic Army in Iraq, are Islamist in name but are more secular than ISIL in that they reject the extremist group’s stated goal of creating a hard-line Islamist caliphate in Iraq. Others, including the Jaysh al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Jaysh Muhammad and Jaysh al-Fatihin, are believed to include former Sunni soldiers who fought in Iraq’s army under former dictator Saddam Hussein.

U.S. officials steered clear of any partition talk during Mr. Kerry’s visit to Baghdad on Monday. Instead, the secretary of state pushed on Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political leaders to embrace a government transition that can stave off the threat of a civil war by giving more power to the non-Shiite minorities.

“The very future of Iraq depends on choices that will be made in the next days and weeks, and the future of Iraq depends primarily on the ability of Iraq’s leaders to come together and take a stand united against ISIL,” Mr. Kerry said, according to The Associated Press account. “Not next week, not next month, but now.”

In a Twitter post on the State Department’s website, Mr. Kerry said he had also met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, as well as Usama al-Nujayfi, a Sunni and the speaker of Iraq’s parliament.

But Mr. Kerry offered few other details of the closed-door meetings, saying only that each of the officials had committed to seat a new parliament by July 1.

The extent to which that effort will include outreach to the Sunni groups now supporting ISIL, however, remains to be seen. Several sources both in Washington and in Iraq have said in recent weeks that the biggest challenge facing Baghdad centers on the fact that Iraq’s political elite — Shiite and Sunni — are essentially detached from the Sunni groups that could be depended upon to wage war against ISIL.

“The Sunni political elite is fractured,” said one source, who added that in order to truly connect with groups operating outside the Iraqi capital, the nation’s leaders will have “to reach beyond the political elite and work with people who have positions at the provincial level.”

“In order for Iraq’s central government to regain control of territory north and west of Baghdad, they’re going to have to pay a whole bunch of people off,” said another source. “One thing al-Maliki is almost certainly attempting to do is reach out to the same kind of Sunni leaders that opposed al Qaeda in Iraq during the years of the Awakening and telling them, ‘You guys really want these ISIL people in charge? They slaughter any Sunnis that won’t come under their umbrella.’”

• This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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