The Obama administration’s slow campaign against the Islamic State takes a small step forward this week, as a leading Sunni politician visits Washington to urge support for a 10,000-member “national guard” force that could gradually help regain control of the Iraqi city of Mosul.
Nujaifi’s carefully arranged visit here suggests some outlines of the strategy the United States is developing with its coalition partners in Iraq. He had voiced many of the same ideas when we talked last August by Skype, and the four-month interlude before the Washington visit illustrates the slow development of the U.S.-led campaign.
The Iraqi official made several comments that challenged conventional wisdom among Iraqi Sunnis. He argued that a tribal militia isn’t the answer, especially in Nineveh and where tribes are weak and disorganized; he spoke positively about Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite who still isn’t trusted by many Sunnis; he rejected a quasi-autonomous “Sunnistan” region in northern and western Iraq; and finally, he said he is working with Turkish military and political leaders on training and equipping fighters.
My only worry in talking with the English-speaking, pinstripe-suited Nujaifi is that he represents an Iraqi elite that has in many ways been shattered by decades of war and the rise of the brutal extremism represented by the Islamic State. Americans over the past decade have often made the mistake of assuming that the pro-American “good guys,” such as Nujaifi, will prevail in the free-fire zone of Iraqi politics. If that hope could be easily realized, the history of the past decade would have been quite different.
Nujaifi said he had met twice with Abadi since he became prime minister in September. “I respect this man. He wants to work. He’s open-minded, not like Maliki,” a reference to Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, who was seen as a polarizing, pro-Iranian figure by most Sunni leaders.
Nujaifi argues that the best model for liberating northern Iraq isn’t the “Awakening” movement of the previous decade, which mobilized Sunni tribes, but a multi-sectarian force that includes Christians, Yazidis and Turkmen along with the majority Sunni Arab population. In recruiting volunteers for this force, he argued, they should be organized by neighborhoods and districts so that they will have support from the local population.
“For us in Mosul, it’s better to fight [the Islamic State] in a systematic way, controlled by [military] officers, not [tribal] sheiks,” Nujaifi said. Already, he said, local fighters are operating secretly inside Mosul gathering intelligence and preparing the battle space.
Nujaifi said a training camp recently opened for police from Nineveh who fled in June. Canadian and U.S. advisers are beginning to train 4,375 police at the camp in Kurdistan, about 30 miles from Mosul. Nujaifi said he hopes soon to open a second training camp nearby for about 10,000 national guard recruits, who would be selected from the 1 million refugees who have fled Nineveh since June, nearly 25 percent of the province’s population.
The Turkish government has already agreed to support both training camps, Nujaifi said. Jordan, too, has been helpful. Nujaifi hopes for support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but he said it isn’t yet visible on the ground.
Iran poses the trickiest problem. Nujaifi said he had met several times with the Iranian ambassador in Irbil, who had offered weapons for the fight against the Sunni jihadists. “We can’t accept that. Our people think that the main enemy is Iran.”