- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2015

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW

Despite the installation of a new U.S.-backed Shiite prime minister in Baghdad more than a year ago, the Iraqi central government’s treatment of the nation’s Sunni majority still has not improved.

But Tariq al-Hashimi, once the highest-ranking Sunni in Baghdad, and who has been in exile since 2011, says he’s not ready to give up on unifying the country, and he opposes growing calls to partition Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines.

“Taking my beloved country apart is a bad herald and, in fact, the worst-case scenario that we should all avoid,” Mr. al-Hashimi told The Washington Times in an interview from Ankara, Turkey, where he has lived since former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused him of running an assassination ring against Shiites and chased him out of Iraq.

While Mr. al-Hashimi blames Mr. al-Maliki for alienating Sunnis so badly that it paved the way for the Islamic State — a Sunni militant group — to rise to the fore in Iraq, he believes “national coexistence” can still be restored between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, lest the nation be “fragmented into weak and unsustainable states.”

Achieving such coexistence will require a policy change by Washington, said Mr. al-Hashimi, who accuses the Obama administration of pursuing a “hidden agenda and close collaboration with Iran” that effectively has greenlit the Mideast’s main Shiite power to wield anti-Sunni influence over Iraq’s government.

“The Americans are still capable of rectifying the situation,” he said.

Step one, he said, would be to reopen a “real dialogue with Arab Sunnis — to listen carefully and understand their fears and concerns, to assist them in normalizing the situation in their province.”

Step two: “Put an end to illegitimate Iranian meddling and exert all possible effort to restructure the political process.”

The U.S., Mr. al-Hashimi argued, is obliged under the 2011 U.S.-Iraq “Strategic Framework Agreement” to protect the nation from outside threats. Washington should be more aggressive in encouraging nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council — such as Saudi Arabia, the Mideast’s main Sunni power — to “play a significant role in this direction,” he said.

The comments by the 72-year-old former vice president, who was sentenced to death in absentia by Baghdad in 2012, come amid debate in Washington, where some argue that the U.S. should make major policy shifts toward Iraq and Syria in order to end the terrorism crisis stemming from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

The White House says President Obama is determined to sustain his policy of fighting Islamic State on the ground in Iraq via the government of Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who replaced Mr. al-Maliki amid pressure from Washington last year.

But some administration critics say that is a bad idea.

“Washington should recognize the new geopolitics” that have been spawned by the ongoing Islamic State threat, says John R. Bolton, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2005 and 2006 during the George W. Bush administration.

“The best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state,” Mr. Bolton wrote in an op-ed published this week by The New York Times. “The rulers of the Arab Gulf states, who should by now have learned the risk to their own security of funding Islamist extremism, could provide significant financing.”

‘The Iranian alternative’

It’s an assertion that comes amid a flurry of recent outcry by Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq, who say Washington has failed to work with and empower them against the terrorists — specifically to recreate something like the so-called “Sunni Awakening” that saw Sunni tribes rise up during the mid-2000s against the Islamic State’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Five Sunni sheikhs told The Times in interviews recently that the Obama administration’s insistence on working through the al-Abadi government to fight the extremists has outraged tribal leaders, who see Iranian influence as so strong in Baghdad that Mr. Abadi is politically incapable of extending a truly inclusive hand to the Sunnis.

“The fact of the matter [is that while Mr. al-] Abadi is open-minded and secular, he’s a very weak prime minister, or he’s scared of Iran — or both,” said Mark Alsalih, a prominent Sunni lobbyist in Washington.

Mr. al-Hashimi, whose interview with The Times occurred via email, suggested that a central problem for the al-Abadi government is that Mr. al-Maliki still wields power behind the scenes with support from Iran.

“Some military and militias as well as other governmental heads are still loyal to al-Maliki,” he said, adding that the former prime minister is “tirelessly working with his allies to dominate again by undermining and hindering the efforts of al-Abadi.”

For instance, while the Obama administration has sought to work with Mr. al-Abadi in creating a new “national guard force” under which Sunni tribal fighters would be given formal status and have their pay guaranteed by Baghdad, the “project has been hindered by Iran and its allies in Iraq,” Mr. al-Hashimi said.

“They don’t want to allow the Sunni community to possess any sort of power, even for defeating ISIS,” he said. “The Iranian alternative is to deploy Shiite militias for fighting ISIS and subsequently pave the way to dominate Sunni provinces. That option is deemed catastrophic and will lead to an ultimate civil war.”

“Sunni tribes,” Mr. al-Hashimi added, “have seriously been under severe pressure and are really desperate to reach an end to all these conflicts. However, they are not in a good position to get involved without [a] clear understanding of what will happen next. What will be the implications of their involvement [in fighting Islamic State]? Who will support their campaign to sweep ISIS out? How will their provinces be ruled and governed upon eliminating ISIS?

“Americans and other influencing countries, apart from Iran,” he said, “should focus on rebuilding trust with the tribes in Sunni areas by initiating a direct dialogue to agree on a strategy that leads to defeating ISIS and guaranteeing no involvement of Shiite militias in future security and governance arrangements in these areas.”

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