Iraq’s crisis won’t be resolved by fighting, Sunni leader says


Iraq's then-speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, greets Secretary of State John F. Kerry, left, in Baghdad last month. Nujaifi sat down for an interview with The Washington Post in Baghdad on Wednesday. (Brendan Smialowski/Reuters)

On July 9, The Washington Post conducted an interview with Osama al-Nujaifi, the most recent speaker of Iraq's parliament and one of the country's leading Sunni lawmakers, at his headquarters in Baghdad.

In an ornate marble room featuring plush sofas and crystal chandeliers, the former speaker shared his views of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government and the mounting violence in Iraq.

Last month, a Sunni extremist group calling itself the Islamic State seized control of a vast swath of northern and western Iraq, with the help of disenchanted Sunni tribal leaders and militias. Like other Sunni lawmakers, Nujaifi pins part of the blame for the jihadists' rapid advance on Maliki, who he says mismanaged an earlier uprising by peaceful Sunni demonstrators and failed to address the broader grievances of Iraq’s Sunni minority.

On Sunday, the parliament is due to meet, under pressure to form a new government that could turn the tide of the escalating crisis.

In practice, the government consists of a Sunni speaker of parliament, a Shiite prime minister and a Kurdish president. The Sunni bloc nominates the speaker first.

The interview was conducted in Arabic and the transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: Parliament is meeting on Sunday. What can we expect?

Nujaifi: Inside the Sunni community now, there is a process underway to nominate a speaker. In two or three days, we will reach an agreement on a name for a speaker. And we hope the Shiites and the Kurds will present [their nominees for prime minister and president, respectively] as well.

But I don’t think the session will be held. It will be delayed.

Q. The government is currently fighting Sunni militants in the north. But I’ve heard some Sunnis refer to what is happening as a “revolution.” How do you describe what’s happening?

Yes, it is a revolution. But at the same time, the terrorists are taking advantage of it.

It’s a revolution that started a year and a half ago, as peaceful demonstrations. [The government] didn’t deal with it according to the constitution. Instead, they faced it with force. So it turned into a military movement.

But it wasn’t as broad as we see now. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) [which now calls itself the Islamic State] took advantage of the gap between the government and the people, and they invaded and occupied Iraqi cities.

ISIS controls important military areas, but the wider geographical area is in the hands of tribes and armed groups who are rebelling against the government, and who before that were fighting the Americans.

We need to differentiate between these groups and the terrorists. We need to face ISIS militarily. But these other groups should be dealt with politically.

Q. Six years ago, U.S. forces helped launch the Sahwa — the Awakening Movement — that got Sunni tribes to fight back against al-Qaeda. What is the state of the Sahwa today?

It’s not active. These days, it is finished, after all that has happened.

There are some areas of Anbar province that the tribes control. They're not rebels or Sahwa, but they protect certain areas, and they don’t let the army or the Islamic State enter. Haditha, Garma and Abul Fahed in Ramadi — these are examples.

Q. What caused the Sahwa to collapse?

The government didn’t deal with it properly. They didn’t pay their salaries or arm them. On the contrary, they were arresting them, and charged them with being terrorists. Thousands of them are in jail, and they killed many of them, too. Some were killed by bombs when they went to collect their salaries. The government dealt with it in a sectarian manner. They didn't want armed groups among the Sunnis.

Q. How can a new government fix Iraq?

Of course, we have to build an official security force from the people of the area. The Iraqi army should be balanced and should be on the borders,  not inside the cities.

Q. How has the army been securing Baghdad since the Islamic State took control of Mosul and areas in the north?

The Iraqi army is very weak right now. They are depending very much on the [Shiite] militias, and the militias are sectarian.

Q. Maliki’s spokesman told us earlier this week that Sunnis are very much involved in helping the armed forces retake areas under Islamic State control. Is that true?

It’s not balanced. A big majority [of the armed forces] are Shiite, and the military decision-makers are Shiites.

Q. How can the government retake Mosul, Tikrit and other areas under the control of the insurgents?

There is no military solution for this crisis. It needs to be a political solution. We have to convince the Iraqi Sunnis in these provinces to cooperate with a new government. You need a political solution first, and you need to isolate the terrorists. You have to distinguish between the terrorists and the citizens, and also between the armed groups.

Q. Are there any Sunni military commanders who are involved in the government offensive?

Of course there are some Sunnis. But the basic decisions are taken from Baghdad, from within a very small circle. Sadoun al-Dulaimi, the defense minister [and a Sunni], has no authority over the Ministry of Defense. He is a figurehead.

Q. What kind of help do you want to see from the U.S. government? Are you pleased with Washington’s role so far?

Right now they are not playing an active role. They are only doing aerial surveillance. They are waiting for a new government to be formed, before they start the real support.

The American role right now is very small. At most, they are making an effort to keep Baghdad from collapsing. But they are waiting for a new government and a political solution.

Q. Reuters news agency reported yesterday [July 8] that the Islamic State has begun kidnapping Baathists and former officers from Saddam Hussein’s military in Mosul. Is that true?

It’s true. They're not killing them. But they’ve kidnapped some of the former commanders of the Iraqi military. They were from the former army and from the Baathists. The problems have started between ISIS and the other groups. They are fighting for control of the city. I don’t know the exact number of people who have been kidnapped, but there is one very prominent one — Waadallah Hantoush. He was the special forces commander [under Hussein]. And Saif el-Din Mashhadani, one of the [U.S.] deck of cards. He was recently kidnapped.

Q. Are there ISIS sleeper cells in Baghdad?

I don’t know. But we expect there are.

Q. What are the Shiite militias doing right now in Baghdad?

They are behaving in a sectarian way. They are arresting young people based on their ID cards [which can give away a person’s sect, based on his or her name]. They've blown up some mosques. It’s an operation to change the demography. Of course, ISIS practices the same operations too. In Tal Afar, they blew up mosques and Husseiniyas [Shiite shrines].

Q. Why haven't government security forces stopped the militias from doing that in Baghdad?

This has been going on for years, especially in Diyala province, where they have blown up dozens of mosques. Since 2006, the Shiite militias have taken over more than 200 mosques and turned them into Husseiniyas. The government never talks about this. The militias are very strong.

Q. Are the militias or security forces raiding homes in Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad?

Yes, in all the Sunni neighborhoods, they [the militias] are controlling the streets. They’re doing the work in place of the army right now.

Q. Can you comment on fighting between the Islamic State and other Sunni groups?

It is a very positive thing, and we hope it expands. And it’s very important. We have to work politically to unify the efforts to get rid of ISIS.

Abigail Hauslohner has been The Post’s Cairo bureau chief since 2012. She served previously as a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine and has been covering the Middle East since 2007.
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