- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2018

U.S. leadership and military must remain in Iraq to promote security, stability and protect American interests under threat from Iranian and Russian influence, Republican Senator Joni Ernst said Thursday.

The Iranians “want Americans gone and that poses a security risk, a stability risk to Iraq because theire interests are not our interests in Iraq,” she said.

The senator, who chairs the emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, spoke of the need to provide the Iraqi government and military with U.S. support greater than what it could receive from Iran or Russia.

“We must continue to provide the Iraqi government, as well as U.S.-aligned groups in Iraq ,with the necessary security assistance and aid to transition into a prosperous nation that supports U.S. principles and values,” she said in a discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

This includes military weapons and the U.S. being a partner of choice in facilitating dialogue among competing groups to promote Iraqi unity, she said.

Before joining the Senate, Ms. Ernst was a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard and had served in Iraq in 2003.

“If we are giving up our hope or turning our backs on Iraq, they will seek help elsewhere. We have already seen Iraq look to Russia for some of their military equipment, which is counter to our goal of limiting Putin’s influence over our allies,” she said.

Success in Iraq is threatened by President Trump’s insistence on American withdrawal, she said, and by the American public’s disengagement from the Middle East and resulting doubts about the necessity of U.S. involvement.

“Now that we have seen ISIS pushed out of Iraq, now the public is not talking about it,” she said. “What we’re hearing is trade and tariffs and the EU and NATO meetings and Putin meeting. And so we’re not focused on where we’re engaging our troops and that does disturb me.”

On Monday, Kurdish forces beat back an attack by suspected Islamic State members on government buildings in Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi-Kurdistan. Despite ousting the terrorist group from control of Mosul in December, the largest swath of territory it held in Iraq, attacks inspired and directed by ISIS continue to plague the region.

“We have declared victory over ISIS in Iraq but we still know that they exist … It’s almost like whack-a-mole — one pops up, slap them back down, and then another one pops up over here,” she said.

“That’s why we have to have that continued ‘train, advise and assist’ mission in Iraq because we have to be there, we have to assist with that leadership, we have to make sure that ISIS doesn’t redevelop.”

The senator further pushed for U.S.-led reconciliation talks among groups in Iraq, which is spiraling into internal conflict with violent protests in the South against unemployment and poor government services. Armed groups, while integrated into the Iraqi army, still act with impunity in their own self-interest.

Some of Iraq’s minority groups suffered some of the worst atrocities committed by ISIS members and they continue to feel vulnerable as Sunni-members of the terrorist group roam free in the country and persecuted Shi’a groups seek retribution and control.

“We have to be the ones fostering the discussion amongst the different groups,” Ms. Ernst said, while adding that in the end, the Iraqis have to want reconciliation for themselves.

“We can’t solve the issue for them, they have to find that path forward and take ownership of their own destiny.”

Yet the senator was scant on details on how the U.S. could encourage dialogue, whether through incentives or ultimatums.

“That is a discussion in a debate that would need to happen up the Hill,” she said.

“Whether it’s promising arms to a certain group or deciding not to arm a certain group, those are some of the discussions that we can have and then there can be other discussions with our international partners as well.”

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