Iraq's Honest Power Broker: The U.S.

Obama must help reconcile the country’s feuding factions
President Barack Obama delivers a statement on airstrikes against Islamic State on Sept. 23 Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images

In addressing the threat posed by Islamic State, President Obama has emphasized that there is no American military solution to the crisis in Iraq and noted that only a more inclusive Iraqi government can hold the country together. So far, however, Obama has been far more specific about the military campaign in Iraq than the diplomatic mission. That needs to change.

Iraq’s long history of violent sectarianism prevents Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds from initiating or sustaining talks. But each group accepts the U.S. as a neutral arbiter. That’s why the Obama administration should push for the creation of an Iraq reconciliation commission, which would mediate between all groups, but especially between Iraq’s discontented Sunni leaders and the primarily Shiite central government in Baghdad.

There’s a promising precedent for such a commission. In 2007 and 2008, the U.S. military established less formal reconciliation mechanisms to mediate between Sunni tribal sheiks and Baghdad. Sunni leaders who agreed to partner with U.S. forces against al-Qaeda in Iraq—the group that would later become Islamic State—were promised federal salaries for their tribal militias and increased government services and largesse for their provinces. To ensure those promises were kept, the U.S. military brought Sunni sheiks to the capital on a regular basis to meet with senior Iraqi officials and high-ranking U.S. military officers and diplomats. This informal reconciliation process collapsed after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011.

The Obama administration has taken important steps to chip away at the new but unnatural alliance between Sunni tribes and the extremist Islamic State. But Iraq won’t be stable until the country’s Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish populations all have assurances that the central government will listen to them. An Iraq reconciliation commission, backed by the U.S. and preferably operating under the auspices of the United Nations, would provide precisely such assurances. It’s in the interest of the U.S., and certainly within its means, to help create such an institution. The administration must now decide if it has the will.

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