Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian divisions, fueled by regional competition among Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, also suggest a way toward a resolution, according to Yonadam Kanna, a member of Iraq’s parliament. It will take internal and international pressure for reconciliation and urgent assistance for rebuilding areas destroyed by the fighting, he said in a recent roundtable at USIP.

Men working on behalf of the Kurdish government hand out food and juice to Iraqi Yazidi families at the Bajid Kandal refugee camp in Dohuk Province, northern Iraq, Aug. 17, 2014. The spread of the Islamic State group has displaced many Christians and Yazidis.
Photo Courtesy of the New York Times/Lynsey Addario

The appeal for national reconciliation was similar to that of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during his visit to Washington last week, including a private meeting at USIP on April 15 with former and current U.S. officials and experts. Abadi has struggled to restore ties between his fellow Shia, who make up the country’s majority, with Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds after relations frayed to the breaking point with the eruption of violence by the Sunni extremist group that calls itself the “Islamic State,” also known as ISIS.

“Nobody is winning. All are losers.”

But while elements of the conflict must be resolved internally, “America can have a big role, pushing the neighboring countries for some consideration and [for] dialogue between them,” Kanna told an invitation-only roundtable at USIP last week, two days prior to Abadi’s visit. Kanna called for a dialogue involving Iraq and regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, as well as others.

The White House announced on April 17 that President Barack Obama has invited members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to Washington and then Camp David in nearby Maryland on May 14 “to discuss ways to enhance their partnership and deepen security cooperation,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. The members of the council are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, and they have been part of the U.S.-led military coalition combatting the ”Islamic State” militants who have wrought terror across northern Iraq and Syria. Obama also met this week with the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, according to the Associated Press.

USIP, the U.S. government and European partners also can help with internal reconciliation, Kanna said. A member of Iraq’s Council of Representatives since 2005, Kanna is from northern Iraq and represents the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the primary political party of the country’s Assyrian Christians. He formerly served as a member of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Risks of Retribution

Kanna said Christians targeted by ISIS since June last year know who is responsible for the devastation, and the temptation to exact revenge on anyone associated with the “Islamic State” group is great. “So we have to find some solution for these problems,” before it morphs into a new crisis, he said.

USIP experts have warned of the increasing militarization of Iraqi society as a result of the atrocities of the past year, with the risk of potentially setting off cycles of retribution. News media have reported the formation of Christian militia units to prevent the potential capture of more towns and villages by the “Islamic State,” but the units’ numbers are still small, and they are ill-equipped and not yet fully trained. The units are independent but aligned with the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and receive funding from Assyrian Christian diaspora in the U.S., Australia, Sweden and elsewhere.

The trend illustrates the dangers even after territory is liberated from the control of ISIS –the lingering trauma in the aftermath of violence, as well as widespread discontent over an economy further slammed by last year’s plunge in oil prices. Tensions are heightened further by failures in government services and feelings of injustice left over from Abadi’s predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, who was seen to favor his fellow Shias and consistently undermined relations with Sunnis and Kurds.

Abadi, who has been in office since September, noted during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington that his government has reached an interim agreement on the long-contentious issue of oil revenues with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and is restoring relationships with Sunni tribes in the areas controlled or threatened by the “Islamic State” group.

“Let me be as clear as I can be: Our government’s highest priority is reducing ethnic sectarian tensions and divisions in Iraq. And we have nurtured close working relationships with parliament and Iraq’s community leaders and religious institutions to ensure an outcome that is favorable to all our people,” Abadi told the audience at CSIS, according to prepared remarks. “We must not only win the war – we must also win the peace.”

Hurdles to Reconciliation

That will be a difficult task. Many leading Shia groups may not be interested in an inclusive Iraq, and Maliki is seen to be leading efforts to undermine Abadi, said Sarhang Hamasaeed, a USIP senior program officer for the Middle East and Africa, in a recent Q&A. There’s also no guarantee that collaboration among the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds on the military push against the Islamic State group will translate into sustained political breakthrough. A further consideration is the persistent presence in one form or another of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other external regional players.

The White House said during the visit that it is “committed to supporting inclusive governance in Iraq and promoting reconciliation.” The State Department is spending more than $17 million for programs such as promotion of human rights and the rule of law and steps to prevent atrocities and ensure accountability for violations, “key areas for building reconciliation and contributing to the stabilization of Iraq.”

Over the longer term and at a more fundamental level, Iraq must deal with the “Daesh mentality,” Kanna said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS. “Daesh is not only those who are fighting. There is the Daesh mentality everywhere,” Kanna said. The response must involve widespread and in-depth education and cultural programs to address feelings of injustice and exclusion. The country needs “educational curriculum from the beginning to teach those kids that there is another [way] – diversity, different religions, different ethnicities, different cultures – to accept that.”

The international community can help the various sides involved in the conflict to understand that reconciliation is the only option for anyone to gain in the long term, Kanna said.

“Nobody is winning. All are losers,” Kanna said. “It [just] depends on who loses more than the other as a result of this conflict.”

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