Iraqby Guy Taylor

Iraq’s ambassador to Washington says the Obama administration doesn’t fully grasp the consequences of failing to more aggressively combat a surging al Qaeda threat inside his country, pointedly suggesting that President Obama has been less engaged with Baghdad than his predecessor.

“The administration has to have a better understanding of any adverse impact of any delay in provision of support to Iraq,” Ambassador Lukman Faily told The Washington Times in an interview Wednesday. “It cannot afford a whole town or province of Iraq falling to al Qaeda and becoming a safe haven. It’s against the U.S. strategic interest. It’s against the U.S. national security to do that.”

Asked whether the White House could do more to facilitate a tighter relationship with Iraq, Mr. Faily said, “to a certain extent they can. But we are no longer in a period in which we had President Bush, who took ownership of that relationship.”

With al Qaeda-linked violence surging in Iraq, Mr. Faily urged U.S. leaders in both parties to stop allowing military and nation-building resources for his country to become embroiled in domestic U.S. politics even as he dismissed suggestions that Iraq is in danger of falling into a full-fledged civil war between its Shiite and Sunni populations.

“I personally think that it’s tragic that the issue of the whole American project in Iraq is now becoming a ball in relations to the party politics within D.C.,” the ambassador said. “I don’t think it’s beneficial for the United States. It’s definitely not beneficial for Iraq to become a tool in Republican versus Democrat or whomever.

“This is not helpful for U.S. security, it is not helpful for us, it is not helpful for the region.”

Given word of The Times’ interview with Mr. Faily, the White House responded Wednesday evening that there is a high level of engagement between U.S. and Iraqi officials and that the U.S. is providing extensive military support to Iraq through Washington’s Foreign Military Sales program, but that the Iraqi government needed to take the lead on countering terrorists in the nation.

National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told The Times in an email, “We are committed to partnering with the government of Iraq to build their capacity to fight terrorism, but the solution to this issue must be an Iraqi-led solution.”

Still, Mr. Faily made the remarks as violence appeared to be spreading Wednesday beyond Iraq’s western Anbar province, where al Qaeda-linked militants have claimed control of the city of Fallujah and parts of the city of Ramadi for more than a week.

Authorities said militants killed 12 government soldiers during an attack on Iraqi army barracks north of Baghdad Wednesday, according to a report by The Associated Press.

Al Qaeda’s gains in Anbar have added fuel to a political fight in Washington over whether the U.S. military should return to Iraq. Some Republicans argue that the Obama administration moved too hastily in pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq two years ago and has not done enough since to help the U.S.-trained Iraqi military maintain security.

The administration announced this week that it would increase and accelerate delivery to the Iraqi military of surveillance drones, as well as air-to-surface Hellfire missiles. But the situation presents a difficult challenge for the White House — particularly because Mr. Obama ran for office six years ago on a promise of ending the war in Iraq.

Mr. Faily appeared to take pains to avoid open criticism, but he said the Obama administration has been notably less willing to “buy in” to a strategy of providing deep support to Baghdad than the Bush administration was.

That reluctance, he suggested, puts the U.S. in the position of ignoring a major strategic interest, particularly since the production of oil in Iraq has the potential to increase to “a level in which it can really stabilize world energy,” he said. “Iraq is the only country with that capability or potential.”

The ambassador suggested that Washington’s indifference toward Iraq may date to the 2011 decision for the U.S. to begin withdrawing troops. Some on Capitol Hill believe the move was fueled as much by U.S. politics as it was by Iraqi desires to claim a sense of sovereignty after nearly a decade of American military intervention.

“You have a reflection of, should we have left or should we have not left at the end of 2011,” Mr. Faily said. “To me, in our analysis of that, the abruptness of the U.S. forces leaving, versus our own Iraqi desire to have sovereignty, what we are seeing now is the immediate aftermath of those two things — in which there was no clarity to the day-after scenario.”

“It’s not a matter of blame. It’s a matter of short-termism arriving over the national strategic interests of the countries,” he said. “For example, the U.S. forces left, but by the time they left, we had no air force. And then we were blamed [by Washington], why the Syrian overflights took place. We had no air force, we can’t force a plane down. And now we’re asking for F-16s, and the U.S. says, why do you need F-16s?”

Mr. Faily said Baghdad also has struggled to cope with the flow of al Qaeda-linked Sunni Muslim extremists across the Syria-Iraq border.

The ambassador sought to downplay a narrative that has become common in the U.S. media: that the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister al-Maliki has fomented sectarian tensions by ignoring the plight of the Sunni population.

Human rights groups have accused the al-Maliki government of strategically and politically alienating Iraq’s Sunnis. Some leading foreign policy analysts in Washington have gone so far as to suggest that the government’s posture has prompted residents in Sunni-dominated areas to tolerate the presence of al Qaeda-linked groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which seized control of Fallujah last week.

“The resurgence of al Qaeda and other extremist movements, and the growing depth of its sectarian and ethnic divisions, is the fault of its political leaders, not outside states or a lack of Iraqi nationalism and inherent forces within Iraqi society,” stated a report released Monday by Anthony Cordesman and Sam Khazai, who are analysts with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. Faily dismissed criticisms of Mr. al-Maliki’s handling of the situation and asserted that the Iraqi prime minister is deeply sensitive to the challenges of growing a national Iraqi identity that includes people from across the nation’s diverse religious, ethnic and economic landscape.

He said the al-Maliki government is trying to come to grips with how to respond effectively but carefully to the developments in Fallujah in such a way that does not inflame moderate Sunnis. “We have not made an attack on Fallujah because we don’t want to cause casualties. So we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” he said. “We want to distinguish and isolate the terrorists or the extremists from the people.

“We do not want to be indiscriminate in our killing of al Qaeda and others as well,” he added, asserting that the al-Maliki government wants citizens in the region to feel that “their lives are sacred” as Iraqis.

Mr. Faily said the process of being “sophisticated in our selection as to who are the terrorists and jihadists” should be helped by “intelligence from the United States, cooperation and data analysis and counterintelligence measures” as well as the provision of military hardware.

The ambassador also called on U.S. leaders to understand that Iraqi society is far more complex than the Sunni and Shiite sectarian divides commonly referenced in the U.S. media.

While he acknowledged that the region is “going through polarization” between Sunni and Shiite powers — with Iraq sandwiched between the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia on one side and the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran on the other, Mr. Faily downplayed the notion that the two Muslim sects inside Iraq are on the verge of civil war.

To prove his point, he asserted that Sunnis fleeing al Qaeda-linked violence in Anbar province are finding refuge in Shiite areas. “When people in Fallujah and Anbar now have problems and they are running away from their cities, they are going to Karbala and Najaf to take safe haven,” he said. “These are pure Shiite towns. You don’t take refuge in your opposite sect if you have an issue of sectarianism.”

He added that sectarianism in Iraqi politics should be viewed within the context of the tumultuous path the nation is traversing from the decades of dictatorship under Saddam Hussein to becoming a plural and diverse democracy.

“Unfortunately, it’s not as binary as Shiite-Sunni. I wish it was, but it is not,” Mr. Faily said.

He acknowledged that, from Washington, the political divisions in Baghdad may appear disastrous when they are in fact progressing through the difficult process of creating a plural democracy in wake of dictatorship.

He called on U.S. leaders from both sides of the political aisle, and particularly on Capitol Hill in Washington, to make more of an effort to understand the complexities of Iraqi political society. “U.S. congressmen have to have better understanding of the politics, and not look at Iraq in a binary way as Sunni-Shiite-Kurd,” he said. “It won’t work. I’m a Kurd and a Shiite. Where does that put me in this paradigm?”

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Guy Taylor is the State Department Correspondent at the Washington Times.

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