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Pressure is on for Iraqi factions to reconcile in face of extremist threat

August 26, 2014 at 6:38 PM EST
The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that it will provide additional military support against the Islamic State militant group only when Iraqis form an inclusive government that can deliver national unity. But can the political system in Baghdad heal the mutual distrust among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds? Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports from Iraq.
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GWEN IFILL: We return now to Iraq and the prospects for unity in a greatly fractured country.

The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that it will provide additional military support against the Islamic State group only when Iraqis form an inclusive government that can deliver national unity.

However, as chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports from Northern Iraq, disaffected Sunnis and Kurds are saying they don’t have much hope in the politics emanating from Baghdad.

MARGARET WARNER: Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers greeted the governor of the long-contested province of Kirkuk Sunday along a defensive trench built to stop infiltration from the south.

And how many of these observation posts are there?

MAN: We have, I think, built 32 of these, and we have another 28 we’re building, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: The Iraqi military used to share security for Kirkuk city and province, until mid-June, when they hastily retreated before the so-called Islamic State’s advance. The Kurdish regional government’s Peshmergas took over.

The trench around the city funnels all who seek to enter it through clogged checkpoints, and many outsiders are turned away. It’s a metaphor for the mutual distrust that afflicts the country among its regions and its sectarian groups, the majority Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds.

But now that the militants have captured one-third of Iraq, the pressure is on, encouraged by the U.S., for the three fashions to reconcile in the capital. Twelve days ago, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to step aside after eight years. Another Shiite figure, Haider al-Abadi, faces a September 10 deadline to form a new government with buy-in from disaffected Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

MICHAEL STEPHENS, Royal United Services Institute: You have two constituencies in that country who clearly feel alienated from the capital city.

MARGARET WARNER: Analyst Michael Stephens, in the Kurdish capital, Irbil, says, before cooperating, both groups have demands, above all, guarantees that Maliki’s heavy-handed Shiite-dominated rule won’t be repeated.

MICHAEL STEPHENS: There’s a number of problems here on both sides to do with distribution of resources and almost a show of respect from the state.

MARGARET WARNER: Part of that respect bubbles up from beneath here, Iraq’s oil wealth. It’s the world’s seventh largest producer, drawing foreign companies with their technology and management skills to produce here.

But the Maliki government has shortchanged the Kurd and Sunni regions in redistributing the revenues. Yet ordinary Iraqis seem less concerned with sharing the oil windfall. Those we met said that what they really want is simply a peaceful country in which to live their lives.

Um Ahmed fled Mosul with her family when extremists took over Iraq’s second largest city June. We met her in an Irbil shopping mall.

UM AHMED, Iraq (through translator): We hope things get better. We ask only for peace and security.

MARGARET WARNER: Baghdad lawyer Aqil Al-Hayali said rampant sectarian violence had forced him and his wife to abandon the capital.

AQIL AL-HAYALI (through interpreter): There is a 20 percent possibility I will go back, but things have to get better. I thank God we don’t have children right now.

MARGARET WARNER: But can the political system deliver reconciliation, and in the face of the I.S. threat?

For answers, we sought out two figures, one from each alienated camp: Kirkuk Governor Karim, a Kurd, and Sunni Arab Ali Hatem Al-Suleiman, leader of Iraq’s largest tribe, whose fighters in 2006 to 2008 helped U.S. forces turn the tide against al-Qaida in Iraq.

Governor Karim has won huge majorities from all sectarian and ethnic communities, Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and Shiites. On a heavily-guarded tour of city projects under construction, he maintained that the extremists’ advance has brought his city’s often divided groups together.

GOV. NAJMALDIN KARIM, Kirkuk, Iraq: Actually, believe it or not, I think it has strengthened the relationship. They feel closer to me. They come to me for their concerns, for their needs and all that more than actually before.

MARGARET WARNER: Karim’s seeks buy-in from all his constituents, delivering services inclusively, in contrast to the zero-sum politics in Baghdad.

It seems to have worked with Turkoman shop owner Arkan Esam.

ARKAN ESAM (through interpreter): We like this governor. Why?  Because he is serving the city and doesn’t differentiate between the ethnicities.

MARGARET WARNER: But Iraq’s long-running sectarian warfare, newly fueled by the extremist advance, still impinges. The evening before we arrived, three deadly bombings tore through this city.

President Obama has been reluctant to get engaged more militarily in Iraq, until its warring factions agree to work together. But the weekend suicide bombings here in Kirkuk and a cluster of other attacks in Baghdad, Diyala province and Irbil suggest that reconciliation remains very difficult to achieve.

Karim believes there’s only one pathway to that, to decentralize the government and empower the country’s three regions. If not, he forecasts, there will be a messy breakup anyway.

GOV. NAJMALDIN KARIM: The common goal is to have — to build a country that’s truly democratic, that’s inclusive, and that is decentralized to the maximum extent you can do it.

MARGARET WARNER: And if that’s not possible?

GOV. NAJMALDIN KARIM: If that’s not possible, I think Iraq is gone as we know it.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about the Kurdish region?

GOV. NAJMALDIN KARIM: The Kurdish region will have every right, if that doesn’t happen, to go its own way and determine its own future.

MARGARET WARNER: And Kirkuk is part of that?

GOV. NAJMALDIN KARIM: Kirkuk is always part of Kurdistan.

SHEIK ALI HATEM AL-SULEIMAN, Crown Prince, Dulaim tribe (through interpreter): We don’t want to split from Iraq, but we want to have our own region, our own economy, our own security. We never wanted to split from Iraq, but rather strengthen Iraq’s unity.

MARGARET WARNER: We spoke with Sheik Ali Hatem in Irbil, far from his ancestral home in the western province of Anbar. He sought refuge here after Baghdad issued an arrest warrant against him for treason amidst the conflict between Maliki’s security forces and Sunni demonstrators in Anbar.

Ali Hatem doesn’t claim to speak for all Sunni Arabs, but he shares Governor Karim’s view that the reconciliation talks in Baghdad will go nowhere if the central government doesn’t loosen its grip.

How hopeful are you that this kind of inclusive government can be formed?

SHEIK ALI HATEM AL-SULEIMAN (through interpreter): Very difficult. If we want to protect Iraq, if we want to protect the right of the Iraqi people, we should move to three different regions, a democratic, federal Iraq, rather than a united Iraq built on the blood of the Iraqi people.

MARGARET WARNER: If that does come to pass, he says, then his Dulaim Tribe and others, far from supporting the militants, as is often charged, are ready to take up arms against the Islamic State forces.

SHEIK ALI HATEM AL-SULEIMAN (through interpreter): ISIS are not Muslims. They are Islamists. They want to take advantage of the Sunni region to create their own country. We have postponed the battle against ISIS only because of the political situation. Otherwise, we are going to face them.

MARGARET WARNER: Even if the Baghdad talks produce an inclusive government and Sunni tribes join the fight, would it be enough?

MICHAEL STEPHENS: The idea that a political agreement in Baghdad will immediately solve all the problems to do with Sunni disaffection and tribal disaffection, I think, is a bit naive. But it just opens that door.

MARGARET WARNER: For a country that sees no exit, even an open door may offer hope.

GWEN IFILL: I spoke with Margaret a short time ago.

Margaret, thanks for joining us again.

We just heard in your piece a Kurdish leader saying that a decentralized Iraq is now possible. Did you have a sense of that?  Is Baghdad crazy about that idea?

MARGARET WARNER: You know, Gwen, I haven’t been in Baghdad on this trip.

But I would say that the Shiites certainly aren’t going to like that idea. After all, they are the majority in this country. They’re bound to keep winning future elections, and that means that for the foreseeable future, they will always get to have a Shiite prime minister. And Maliki’s made that a hugely important post.

The only thing that might change their mind and be more willing to compromise is that now they do need the other two groups to fight this new threat from these extremist forces. But that’s only if the Kurds and the Sunnis insist on it as a price for getting into the government.

Now, the Kurds, who have this semiautonomous region already up here, are, of course, in favor of it if it means getting a bigger slice of the oil revenues or getting to sell their own.

I think the Sunnis — the Sunni political class is a little less clear, because you do have Sunni politicians in Baghdad who are invested in the idea of a strong central government. They just want a bigger slice of it. Their critics say, like that sheik that we interviewed, that’s because they want to share in the spoils.

The question I keep getting asked here, Gwen, is, where is the United States going to come down on this?  A lot of people here, and I — and also farther south into Iraq proper, have said, you know, the Americans’ insistence over the last 10 years under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama on a unified Iraq is really unrealistic, because the politics practiced here are sectarian, winner-take-all, and always alienates the other two groups.

GWEN IFILL: Does Iran have a role in this — in the direction this goes?

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, absolutely. They have had a role here all along, even all during the American occupation, as a matter of fact.

But the latest sign of that was that, today, surprisingly, the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, showed up here in Irbil, met with the president and the prime minister. They had a joint press conference. And President Massoud Barzani, the president of this region, announced that in fact Iran has been supplying the Kurds with weapons to fight the I.S. forces.

Now, that’s a real turnaround, because the Iranians have their own Kurdish problem, as they see it. They have never been friendly to this semi-sovereign Kurdish entity up here. But I guess it’s the I.S. threat that is impelling them in that direction. And Barzani said, you know, we asked a lot of countries for help and for weapons, and Iran was the first country to respond.

So I think it is evidence, Gwen, that, in this sort of slow-motion dissolution of Iraq that we have been really seeing over the last few years, exacerbated by the I.S. forces now, not only Iran, but perhaps some of Iraq’s other neighbors are going to want to play.

GWEN IFILL: Keeping an eye on Iran and the U.S., Margaret Warner for us in Iraq tonight, thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Pleasure, Gwen.