Iraq must achieve a political reconciliation among its long-divided religious and ethnic groups as a first step toward defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) extremists who control a third of the country, Iraq’s parliament speaker said at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Reconciliation will rely heavily on building police and military forces that those disparate communities can trust, said the speaker, Saleem al-Jubouri.

al jubouri

Al-Jubouri, one of the country’s most prominent Sunni Arab officials, said he hopes to have key legislation passed as early as next month to create a National Guard—a step backed by the U.S. government as an essential step to building confidence and loyalty to the Iraqi state among Sunnis.

As U.S. military trainers work to help Iraq’s army regroup and reverse ISIS’ advance of the past year, a critical part of any Iraqi offensive must be the establishment of inclusive and conciliatory governance in areas restored to state control, al-Jubouri said in a speech and question-and-answer session on June 8 during a visit to Washington for meetings at the White House and with leaders in Congress. The northwestern third of Iraq, seized by ISIS following its capture of the city of Mosul a year ago, is dominated by Sunni Arabs, who have fought for influence in Iraq with the ethnic Kurds of the northeast and the Shia Arabs who are the majority and dominate the south.

Al-Jubouri’s visit follows recent trips to Washington by other top Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani. Speaking at USIP events, al-Abadi and Barzani also called for cooperation among Iraq’s communities to confront ISIS.

In the battle against ISIS extremists, al-Jubouri said, many Sunni Iraqis have hesitated to fight the group, which particularly opposes Shia Islam, because they feel the militants may offer protection from a Shia-dominated government and Shia militias. The spread of ISIS in the Sunni northwest “is a result of the policy of exclusion… during the past few years,” al Jubouri said, speaking in Arabic with interpretation into English.

Sunnis in those areas felt unrepresented within Iraq’s security forces and thus unable to protect themselves, he said. ISIS’ growth also is “a natural result of the administrative and financial corruption that has spread to the military and other institutions of the state,” he told an audience of policy specialists, officials and journalists.

Still, “the situation in Iraq does not call for despair, despite the darkness of the scene,” al-Jubouri said. He thanked the United States and its allies for their help in the past year to confront ISIS, which he referred to by its Arabic-language acronym, Daesh. Iraq’s foreign allies “must multiply their military efforts in our country and increase their aid for the emerging democracy” in Iraq, he said. “There is no alternative but to go into this battle side by side… so that we will have no other terrorist organization grow from the ruins of Daesh to threaten our security and peace.”

At the center of a political reconciliation among Iraqis, “we must have a political reform and restructuring of the security institutions” based on professionalism and efficiency, rather than the current “system of ethnic and sectarian quotas,” al-Jubouri said. He stressed the need for more unified command structures in Iraq’s localities, saying the chaos of the military’s defeats in Mosul and Ramadi was caused largely by a lack of centralized command over pro-government forces.

A Key Step: A National Guard

Al-Jubouri’s presentation reflected the complications of creating a security architecture to underpin the Iraqi state. Al-Jubouri discussed his effort to have the Council of Representatives, or parliament, pass the National Guard bill. He noted that the original legislation aimed to reassure Sunni Arabs by creating Guard units that would be closely rooted and controlled from within their own governorates, or provinces. He said the proposal has been amended to put those units more under central government control, a change that worries Sunni Arabs.

Still, al-Jubouri said, he hopes to pass a bill as early as July. “The law for the National Guard will be the guarantee for the security of the governorates that are threatened,” he said.

And, al-Jubouri, noted, the most basic laws to complete the framing of the state also still need to be passed. “It is important also to approve the unified federal (court) law and to separate the powers of the state and maintain the independence of the judiciary,” he said.

To achieve a broad reconciliation, al-Jubouri called for closer cooperation with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shia, who has sought to ease Sunni-Shia tensions since he took office in September.

In the project of reconciliation, we are partners with [Prime Minister al-Abadi]. – Iraqi Parliament Speaker Saleem al-Jubouri

“We work with him as partners,” said al-Jubouri. “He needs support and he also must take the initiative to implement agreements that have been concluded in the past” among the country’s Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities. “Because delaying will create a feeling that there is no commitment… In the project of reconciliation, we are partners with him, and we will continue to cooperate with him to achieve it. It is not an easy project; it is not slogans. It is a practical project with commitments on both sides. So my evaluation of this project is (that) it is not up to the required level… not really convincing yet, for me… Definitely the matter requires efforts from everyone in order to achieve it.”

Al-Jubouri also commented that:

Political reforms and public security must be implemented in areas recovered from ISIS. “I put before you some principles that express a comprehensive project for reform … The first issue: We must think about the stability of the areas liberated from their seizure by Daesh, and we must offer a model through which we can motivate those who are still living under the control of Daesh in Nineveh and Anbar (governorates) so that they can do everything possible” to resist the extremist group, al-Jubouri said.

Any Sunni groups that confront ISIS must be assured of better protection than in the past. After Sunni tribes rose up against al-Qaeda in 2005, the Shia-dominated government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki put many of their fighters on trial for having formed illegal armed groups, al-Jubouri said. They “were charged with carrying weapons against the law; tried and detained.” Now, “if they confront Daesh, who is going to protect them from the state afterwards?… They are looking or someone who can stand by them, and the party they need most is the prime minister,” al-Abadi.

While Iraq should not create lasting militias outside the structure of the state military, such forces will be needed in the short term to defeat ISIS. “We must end all aspects of armed forces outside of the (official state) military,” al-Jubouri said. “Because these are a militarization of society… and an introduction to a totalitarian system and a return to our past that we do not want.” Still, he added: “We must arm the tribes. We cannot eliminate Daesh except with the local population, through coordination with the federal government.” While the United States and its allies are ready to supply weapons through the central government, it is essential “to have guarantees so that these weapons would reach the local population to confront Daesh,” he said. Sunni groups have complained that the Shia-led government has restricted their access to weapons in the past.

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