Following her trip to Iraq, Nancy Lindborg discusses the country’s efforts to rebuild after ISIS. “They’ve [ISIS] been deprived of their territory …. rebuilding is under way. But, there is very much a sense that the ISIS ideology is alive and well and there are a lot of concerns overall about security,” says Lindborg. “There has been important progress, but it’s very precarious and completely reversible.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim: What is the situation in Iraq these days? There's been much discussion about the U.S. and its relationship with Iraq, especially in the wake of the seeming evidence that Iraq is turning more towards Iran lately. Well, our next guest has returned recently from overseas from Iraq. Nancy Lindborg, the president of the United States Institute of Peace, is joining us to give us an update on the situation on the ground there. She's Tweeting @NancyLindborg and is with us. Nancy, welcome back. Thank you for being here today.

Nancy Lindborg: Good to be with you, Tim. Good morning.

Tim: What was the purpose of the trip? What were you looking for?

Nancy Lindborg: Well, I hadn't been back for a year, and when I was there a year ago, things were very tense and there was just a mop up of the campaign against ISIS, so with an opportunity to see what kind of progress had happened, and especially how we're the partners of USIP, who are working on the front lines, negotiating local level peace accords, what kind of progress were they having.

Tim: Let's talk about ISIS. Where is that threat right now?

Nancy Lindborg: They've definitely been deprived of their territory. I was able to visit most of the Nineveh Plains, which were areas that they had occupied, and rebuilding is underway. There are definitely some important returns, but there's very much a sense that the ISIS ideology is alive and well, and there are a lot of concerns overall about security. Certainly some of the minorities who live in the Nineveh Plains areas, the Christians and the Yazidis, are still afraid to go home.

Nancy Lindborg: There's much to still be worried about with the potential for a reemergence of the next iteration of ISIS. I wouldn't say that we're out of the woods on that by a long shot.

Tim: You mentioned some of these religious groups, and I wonder there has been a history since obviously Saddam Hussein's downfall about whether or not the government is there and serving a particular religious segment of the population. Is that suspicion still there or not?

Nancy Lindborg: You know, it's such an interesting history. There's a rich mosaic in the northern part of Iraq in this area called the Nineveh Plains that has deep biblical resonance. USIP has been working since 2010 with a group called Alliance of Iraqi Minorities that constitute 18 different groups, the Zoroastrians, the Christians, the Yazidis, the Sabean-Mandateans It's this unbelievably, historically rich group. They were some of the most persecuted under ISIS, and we've heard the terrible, terrible stories, particularly of what happened to the Yazidi girls who were enslaved. The Christians also suffered, were driven from their homes.

Nancy Lindborg: These groups, despite a lot of assistance and a lot of focus, particularly from this country, have not gone home in anywhere near the levels that they used to have. There is a lot of concern about their security. The area now is patrolled by what's called Popular Militia Fronts, which are basically militia groups that helped defeat ISIS, some of whom are backed by Iran, and now they're there to stay, and they are not seen as serving the interests of these minority communities, therefore creating additional security concerns that prevent the restoration of what the communities used to be.

Tim: Nancy Lindborg with us, president of the United States Institute of Peace, recently back from Iraq. I note that in the region, we've heard a lot about refugees from Syria, for example, from conflicts across the region, and within Iraq, I gather from the notes I have here that there is a real problem with what they call IDPs, internally displaced persons, which I guess is the same as refugees, only they stay in country. Give us a sense of what the situation is with that.

Nancy Lindborg: A good number have gone back to their homes. There is some good success stories, especially in the Anbar Province. There are still about 1.7-1.8 million people who are displaced within Iraq. They are internally displaced, and some of them are not going home because of security concerns. Some of them are not going home because they don't yet have a rebuilt home to go to. Part of the western part of Mosul, where I had a chance to visit, is still utter shambles, rubble, destroyed. It's a combination of those factors.

Nancy Lindborg: It's deeply complicated by the presence of what are known as ISIS families, the women and children who are associated, their fathers or husbands were ISIS fighters, and this represents a very complicated dilemma for Iraq. The number, how many there are, is highly uncertain, but there are hundreds of thousands of these women and children who are gathered in camps. Some say it's for their own protection because of the revenge that might be exacted on them if they went back to their homes, but the concern, of course, is that they could be further radicalized, especially the children who grow up in camps where they are deprived of education and opportunity and even basic services. This represents a very important challenge that, left unaddressed, could really contribute to the reemergence of ISIS, now or down the road.

Tim: Nancy, I need to ask about the Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi's visit recently to Tehran. There's a question about whether, in some ways, Iraq may be turning to Iran or they're just trying to maintain some sort of a relationship to keep the peace. Is this a departure from the U.S.? I know there have been concerns about the United States ratcheting up the pressure on Iran, which including declaring the Revolutionary Guard, a terrorist group, and this has not gone over well in Iraq. Give us a sense of how this is playing out right now.

Nancy Lindborg: You get a sense that Iran is in a really tough neighborhood, and you have a Prime Minister who's playing a delicate balancing game between a powerful neighbor with whom he shares a very long border and many deep economic ties, and he knows they're not going away, also trying to balance some of the broader neighbors. He was recently, the Prime Minster, was recently in both Jordan and Egypt, and there seems to be an effort to reintegrate Iraq into the larger Gulf region and perhaps a bit of a balance to Iran. I think the backdrop to a lot of this is an uncertainty on what is the U.S. policy and what is our staying power, and there's very much a concern that the troops might leave, that the U.S. might turn its attention elsewhere.

Nancy Lindborg: What you see is a Prime Minister who's trying to balance and weigh all of these different forces at a time when the country is still very, very weak. Since I was there a year ago, there's important progress, palpable progress. They're taking a lot of the T-walls, those cement barriers, down in Baghdad, but it's very precarious progress, and it's completely reversible with a lot of these challenges around security, economic development, and the inability of large numbers of people to go home yet.

Tim: Nancy, thank you for joining us. Appreciate you're sharing the results of your trip. Thanks for being on POTUS.

Nancy Lindborg: Always good to talk to you, Tim. Thank you.

Tim: Nancy Lindborg is the president of the United States Institute of Peace, recently back from Iraq, an update on the situation on the ground there, relationship with Iran, the US, a lot to figure out on the status of ISIS right now, and she is Tweeting @NancyLindborg, L-I-N-D-B-O-R-G.

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