Ibrahim al-Jaafari is delivering a mixed message.

Photographer: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

The Sense Behind the Nonsense From Iraq's Foreign Minister

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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On the eve of a major donor's conference in Washington, Iraq's foreign minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, would like Americans to know a few things about his country. 

First, Iraqis are not a sectarian people: "Coexistence is a culture that lives in Iraq." Second, Iraqis of all backgrounds suffered equally under Saddam Hussein. (Never mind what those Kurds over there might tell you.) And finally, there are no Americans fighting the Islamic State today on Iraqi soil. 

If you believe this, then al-Jaafari would like to get in touch later to discuss a few bridges he is putting on the market. For the rest of you, though, al-Jaafari's remarks illustrate how many Iraqi elites sound delusional when speaking to foreign audiences.

Let's look at al-Jaafari's first and most significant claim. He repeated this line about his countrymen being nonsectarian several times at his talk Tuesday at the U.S. Institute of Peace. When asked about how the Sunni Arab minority complain publicly that the government in Baghdad does not represent them, al-Jaafari dismissed the point entirely, stating that Sunnis serve in the government, the police and the parliament.

While this is true, it's also misleading. One of the precursors to the Islamic State's 2014 rampage throughout Iraq was a series of largely nonviolent protests in Sunni majority areas of the country. The Shiite prime minister at the time, Nouri al-Maliki, responded to these protests with his military and mass arrests.

Al-Jaafari's own political biography also puts the lie to his claim about Iraqi nonsectarianism. When he served as prime minister, he was a member of a confessional Shiite party known as Dawa. He has since split from this party and started a reform bloc. But Maliki and his successor, Haidar al-Abadi, are both members of Dawa in good standing. When Ayad al-Allawi's multi-confessional party won the most parliamentary seats in the 2010 elections, Dawa and other Shiite parties struck a deal with the Kurds, to keep Sunni parties out of the governing coalition. 

So what is going on here? Al-Jaafari is making the case that the Islamic State and Shiite extremists in the country are foreign influences, but are not really Iraqi. Again, there is a grain of truth to this. The Islamic State's predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, was a part of Osama bin Laden's terror group and was directed by its leadership in Pakistan. Iran has funded and supported the Shiite militias that have stoked sectarianism too.

But many Sunni Iraqis are also attracted to the poison of the Islamic State, even if a large majority of them pledge their allegiance to this self-proclaimed caliphate only because they are forced to do so. As Kyle Orton, a British security blogger, has documented, many Baathists purged from the post-Saddam state filled the ranks of Al Qaeda and later the Islamic State. During Maliki's crackdowns in late 2013 and early 2014, some prominent Sunni tribal leaders stated openly that they preferred the Islamic State to Maliki's army.

"The Iraqi conversation in social media and other forums is far more advanced than this happy talk," Nibras Kazimi, the proprietor of the Talisman Gate blog that focuses on Iraqi politics, told me. "There is deep introspection about where the extremism is coming from and what is ahead for Iraq in containing extremism and healing its wounds." 

This gets to the part of al-Jaafari's talk this week that had some merit. When he was detailing how Iraqi army units and volunteer militias were fighting and winning against the Islamic State, he said, "Iraqis are not only defending themselves, they are defending the world."

Again, this is only part of the picture. The participation of some Shiite militias in the battle against the Islamic State will only exacerbate the sectarian tensions that al-Jaafari says do not exist. At the same time, as the terror in France and Germany in the last week shows, the Iraqi fight is the West's fight too.

That's the message al-Jaafari will convey Wednesday to foreign and defense ministers gathering in Washington for a conference to help fund the campaign to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, which the Islamic State has occupied now for more than two years. It would be a shame if that message were lost because Iraq's foreign minister insists on dressing it up with pleasant-sounding fictions.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

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Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net