Iraq's Only Honest Broker: Obama

Victory requires reconciliation.

In addressing the threat posed by Islamic State, President Barack Obama has repeatedly 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 central government in Baghdad. In the absence of such an institution and dialogue, Iraq's sectarian divisions will continue to invite extremism that threatens the entire Middle East.

There is a promising precedent for such a commission. Beginning in 2007 and 2008, the U.S. military established less formal reconciliation mechanisms to mediate between Sunni tribal sheikhs and Baghdad. Sunni leaders who agreed to partner with U.S. forces against al-Qaeda in Iraq -- the same 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 sheikhs to the capital on a regular basis to meet with senior Iraqi officials and high-ranking U.S. military officers and diplomats. Absent this kind of engaged U.S. diplomacy (and arm-twisting), Iraq's various ethnic factions would have been rendered mute by their mutual distrust, unable to make necessary compromises.

But this informal reconciliation process collapsed after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. U.S. diplomats in Baghdad lacked the security forces to travel freely to Anbar and other far-flung provinces, and they were discouraged from doing so by then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who viewed the Sunni tribes as a long-term threat to his rule. As Maliki reneged on promises to pay salaries to the Sunni militias and purged Sunni officers from the Iraq security forces, the relationships that U.S. officials had nurtured with Sunni tribes withered.

Eventually a new generation of tribal leaders assumed power in Iraq's Sunni heartland. Disillusioned and furious with Maliki, they found common cause with the brutal Sunni extremists of Islamic State.

The Obama administration has already taken important steps to chip away at the unnatural alliance between Sunni tribes and the much more extreme Islamic State. Senior administration officials can take credit, for instance, for working behind the scenes to help oust the divisive Maliki. They have also publicly supported the establishment of "national guard" units in each of Iraq's 18 provinces. These forces will replace Shia-dominated units of the Iraqi army and incorporate local militias such as the Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni Sons of Iraq.

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 is in the U.S.'s interests, and certainly within its means, to create such an institution. The Obama administration must now decide if it has the will.

--Editors: James Kitfield, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net