- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2015

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

President Obama will have to step up pressure on Baghdad to share U.S. military hardware with the country’s Sunni and Kurdish forces if Washington is serious about retaking the key northern city of Mosul from the jihadi Islamic State movement.

That’s the message Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Iraq’s Nineveh Province, which includes Mosul, brought with him to Washington this week, saying the Iraqi central government was heavily favoring Shiite militia groups over his own forces in the fight against the Islamic State.


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In an interview with The Washington Times on Wednesday, Mr. al-Nujaifi painted a dire picture of the prospects for routing the extremists from the nation’s second-largest city without a serious rethinking of the administration’s current policy of allowing Baghdad to decide who gets what weapons.

Mr. al-Nujaifi said he personally called on retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen as well as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk — the administration’s top two officials overseeing the U.S.-led coalition against the extremists — to change the administration’s approach.



Divisions and distrust between the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and Sunni and Kurdish populations that have suffered the brunt of the Islamic State advance continue to bedevil the U.S.-backed offensive. Leading Iraqi Sunnis traveled to Washington to air their concerns this week.

A good place to start, Mr. al-Nujaifi said, would be to create a new central committee that includes not just the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, but the leaders of Iraq’s Sunni Arab provinces, its Kurdish region, as well as the U.S. Army, to ensure U.S. and European military hardware flows more evenly to all groups.

“The administration here must tell the Iraqi government that we need that committee to manage the delivery of weapons,” Mr. al-Nujaifi added. “Without such a committee, Baghdad will put the weapons in the hands of the Shia militias, and they will destroy the Iraqi state. They will make the militias stronger than the army or any other groups.”

Mr. al-Nujaifi said there were just 3,000 hardened fighters from the Islamic State — also known as ISIS and ISIL — currently occupying Mosul. But a campaign to drive them out requires weapons for an 11,000-strong volunteer army who’ve banded together in an anti-Islamic State ground coalition on the city’s outskirts.

While he said U.S., Canadian and Turkish troops have spent much of the past year training the mainly Sunni Arab force, the volunteers remain ill-prepared because Baghdad refuses to provide weapons, and U.S. commanders have yet to present a coherent battle plan for retaking Mosul.

“The preparations are not occurring under any concrete plan,” he said, adding that there needs to be a serious policy shift on weapons from Washington — the momentum for which must come from higher than Gen. Allen and Mr. McGurk, he added.

“We trust Gen. Allen as a general, but if he’s not given the tools to finish his job, we cannot blame him for that,” the Iraqi governor said. “He needs a lot of tools, and one of those tools is the political work inside Iraq to make sure the Sunnis are brought onto the right side of the fight against ISIS.”

Broad concern

It’s a concern shared by other Iraqi leaders — particularly those operating beyond the fold of the nation’s Shiite-dominated federal government.

Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), told reporters in Washington last week that Baghdad has also been slow to share equipment with Kurdish peshmerga forces.

Administration officials insist allowing Baghdad to control the weapons flow is necessary to keep the nation’s varied sectarian and religious factions united. “Our policy with regard to arms transfers, again, is designed to reinforce that policy,” a State Department spokesman said Wednesday.

Other U.S. officials have said the administration is clinging to the policy in hopes that Iraq’s parliament will soon pass into law an Obama administration-backed initiative to create a new Iraqi National Guard force. Officials close to Gen. Allen have said such a force will help legitimize Sunni tribal and regional militias and ease Baghdad’s ability to accelerate the flow of U.S. weaponry to them.

But the law has been stalled for months.

Mr. al-Nujaifi suggested the administration’s unwillingness to change course may be driven by a desire to appease Iran. Parallel to the war against the Islamic State, administration officials are pushing for a nuclear deal with Iran, and are seen to be offering concessions that keep the deal on track. Tehran has close ties to many of the biggest Shiite militia leaders.

“Sometimes we hear that the Obama administration thinks about the nuclear profile more than the fight against ISIS in Mosul,” Mr. al-Nujaifi said.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government in Baghdad has tried to channel Iraq’s existing military toward a campaign to retake Mosul, said Mr. al-Nujaifi, while Sunni fighting units languish in Iraq’s second-largest city.

Mosul is far off from Baghdad,” he said, asserting that the al-Abadi government is content to focus on fighting the Islamic State in Iraq’s Diyala and Al-Anbar provinces, which straddle the capital city from the east and west. In doing so, he said, the government is funneling U.S. and European weapons to Shiite militias — including those from the Iran-aligned Badr Organization and Hezbollah.

“What’s happening to the weapons?” Mr. al-Nujaifi said. “That’s our question. It’s not clear. They get sent to Baghdad, and then the Shiite militias are taking them.”

He added that there is great wariness among the Sunni volunteer forces that Iran-aligned militias will soon move north. If that happens, the risks are high that the Sunni Arab volunteers might clash with the Shiites rather than fight alongside them in the battle for Mosul.

It all starts, Mr. al-Nujaifi said, with the weapons distribution policy. Invoking a famous plea Winston Churchill once made to Washington, he said the solution could be simple: “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”

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