Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace after his first meeting with President Donald Trump, said the new U.S. administration is “prepared to do more” to fight terrorism than its predecessor, but he cautioned that military force alone won’t defeat ISIS. Abadi said his government is trying to gain the trust of the Iraqi people by reducing abuses by security forces, ensuring that areas recaptured from ISIS are stabilized and making the government more accountable.

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Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi

“We see an administration and a president who see and appreciate what we are doing and give us support,” Abadi said after his visit to the White House. “We have been given assurances that the support will not only continue but will accelerate.”

He said he did not expect to see large numbers of additional American forces, and that fighting terrorism would require complementary approaches anyway.

“We have to be careful here,” he said. “There are better ways for defeating terrorism, and I think we can do it.” He cited the need to improve governance for the people of Iraq and reduce tensions in the Middle East and North Africa that often fuel terrorism, as regional powers support extremist groups to further their political goals.

Abadi’s remarks and a Q&A moderated by USIP President Nancy Lindborg marked his second visit to the institute in two years. In April 2015, he met privately with a group of current and former top U.S. officials and other experts during his first trip to the U.S. after taking office in 2014.

Nobody could have imagined when I was here last year that we’ll be in Mosul today.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi

The United States has about 5,000 troops in Iraq as part of a coalition supporting the Iraqi government’s drive to recapture territory seized by ISIS since the group’s shocking sweep across the country’s north in the summer of 2014. The Iraqi government and its backers have wrested major areas from ISIS, including Tikrit, Ramadi, Falluja and, most recently, the eastern side of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the last ISIS stronghold in the country. They are about halfway toward liberating western Mosul.

'A Long Way'

“We have come a long way,” Abadi said at USIP today. “Nobody could have imagined when I was here last year that we’ll be in Mosul today.”

The U.S. leads the Global Coalition Against ISIS, made up of 68 nations and organizations working to defeat the terrorist group in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is hosting a two-day meeting of foreign ministers and other representatives of the alliance in Washington later this week to update strategy and plans.

The successful military operations have accelerated talk about the political, economic and social initiatives that will be needed to bring stability and sustain the peace in the aftermath. ISIS grew out of the remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq and drew strength from political disenchantment with the Shia-led government of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was criticized by the international community for marginalizing and harassing Sunnis who sought a role in governance.

USIP Middle East Director Sarhang Hamasaeed has noted how much more virulent and brutal ISIS has been than even al-Qaida. If the opportunity is lost to stabilize Iraq after the recapture of Mosul, he says, the country could fall back into the divisions that led to the rise of ISIS, spurring a renewed—and potentially even more lethal—cycle of radicalization and violence.

USIP has worked in Iraq since shortly after the U.S. invasion of 2003 to provide analysis, training and other support to national and local leaders in government and civil society who are working to re-establish peace and sustain it for the long term.

The institute works with local partners to guide community reconciliation in areas liberated from ISIS. The results have yielded agreements among tribal leaders, government officials and others to prevent violent retribution and pursue justice through formal systems. In one such case after a 2014 massacre by ISIS of some 1,700 mostly Shia cadets from a military base known as Camp Speicher, a peace accord allowed more than 300,000 people, most of the population, to return to their homes in safety.

“We’ve seen that these efforts can pay off and make a real difference,” Lindborg said in opening remarks at the Abadi event. Such initiatives can be replicated, she said, and USIP is working with the U.S. and Iraqi governments, the United Nations and Iraqi civil society partners to connect local resolutions with national efforts at reconciliation.

USIP also supports Iraqi minorities seeking to secure their place in Iraq’s society, helps facilitate improved cooperation between police and citizens and informs policy discussions on the ground and in Washington.

Prosecuting ISIS Crimes

In response to an audience question, Abadi said he would “welcome” an independent investigation into atrocities committed by ISIS, but that they should be conducted in Iraq. He said he is discussing with the British government the possibility of establishing a tribunal with support from the U.K.

Abadi said the joint fight against ISIS has improved relations between Arabs and Kurds, especially their armed forces, which have been cooperating in the war. He deflected a question about long-held plans by the Kurdistan Regional Government to hold a referendum, still unscheduled, on independence from Iraq. Asked what Baghdad’s reaction would be if Kurdistan declares itself a state, Abadi said, “We’ll discuss it then.”

Iraq’s future will depend in part on the larger power struggles in its neighborhood among Shia-led Iran, and the Sunni-dominated Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia. Abadi said extremist groups still garner too much support from those power struggles taking place along Iraq’s borders.

“You have Saudi Arabia on one side, who are eager to be a leader of the Islamic Sunni world. You have Iran on the other side, who is eager to become the leader of the Shia Islamic world or even beyond,” he said. “You have Turkey as well, competing for the leadership of the Muslim Sunni world.”

Iraq doesn’t want to be part of that conflict, he said.

“We are looking after our own interests,” Abadi said. “We are very eager to stop these regional conflicts.”

The prospects for an easing of tensions improved last month, when Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir became the first senior Saudi official to visit Iraq since 1991.

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