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As Tensions Boil Over, How Might Iraq Prevent Return to Chronic Violence?

May 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ray Suarez talks with former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and Feisal Istrabadi, Iraq's former deputy ambassador to the United Nations, about the upsurge in Iraqi violence and boiling political pressures, how the conflict in Syria has spilled over into Iraq and whether the country is advancing towards civil war.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on all of this we get two views. Ryan Crocker was U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009 and is now a distinguished professor at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. And Feisal Istrabadi is the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University. He also served as Iraq’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations from 2004 to 2007.

Ambassador Istrabadi, let’s start with you. How do you explain the recent upsurge in violence in Iraq?

FEISAL ISTRABADI, Former Deputy Iraqi Ambassador to United Nations: Well, of course, the — it is an upsurge. That’s an important word. That is to say, there has been an ongoing degree of violence for some time sort of percolating along. I think a number of things have occurred.

I think that the Maliki government has — Nouri al-Maliki himself has been asserting greater and greater control over the instrumentalities of the state, and I — and has been unable or unwilling to enter or execute the compromises that Gen. Petraeus had worked out at the time of the American troop surge.

And these chickens have sort of come home to roost at this point, and the dissatisfaction has just boiled over, I think.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Crocker, is that how it looks to you, that an increasingly controlling Iraq prime minister is what is bringing on all this new violence?

RYAN CROCKER, Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: I think Feisal is right, Ray.

It’s a very complex situation, obviously. There is an Iraqi domestic sectarian element, with Iraq Sunnis unhappy over actions taken against prominent Sunni politicians, most recently charges against the highly regarded minister of finance, Rafi Issawi, as well as the decision to postpone provincial elections in two predominantly Sunni provinces, Nineveh and Anbar.

But there’s another element as well that is captured in your clip. Al-Qaida in Iraq is very much on the offensive, and they have combined with Syrian al-Qaida, Jabhat al-Nusra, in a truly horrific alliance. So these attacks from al-Qaida, of course, play into an increase in sectarian tension that erupted in violence in Hawijah, as you pointed out, on April 23rd.

I think it is a time when the prime minister, who we just heard call for steps to stop sectarian tensions, and other Iraqi politicians to take a deep breath, consider all that they have achieved, and not risk losing it now.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Istrabadi, do you, like Ryan Crocker, see some of the Syrian conflict spilling over into Iraq?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, I have no doubt that Ryan is right about that, but I have to say that we have been — that the sectarian violence, again, never truly subsided in Iraq. There’s always been an undercurrent of it.

And I don’t believe, myself, that the Syrian crisis is fanning the flames in Iraq as such. Rather, with these sorts of alliances of convenience that Ryan just mentioned, what you have is perhaps, if you’re a Sunni tribal sheik, you might look the other way when you see an al-Qaida operative or an al-Qaida cell operating, if you believe that you have been sort of permanently disenfranchised from the current political — from the current polity.

So, while I think it’s contributing to it, I don’t think it’s a causative factor. I might also say that part of the paralysis of the Maliki government, in my view, is that as they see what seemed, at least, to be sort of a Shia government falling in Syria, he was, I think, Maliki, was concerned that that would be a precedent in Iraq and that that has made him more intransigent in terms of making a political settlement of the issues.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Crocker, you have called this recent situation reminiscent of the days in 2006 that led to virtual civil war in Iraq. Is Iraq sliding towards civil war today?

RYAN CROCKER: I don’t think Iraq is at that point.

But I do think the caution has to be sounded. The violence in Hawijah, when predominantly Shia security forces attacked a Sunni protest encampment and killed 20 people, is a very dangerous sign. And I think it should be the signal for Iraqis of all sects and ethnicities to take a very deep breath, to recognize that they could slide back into chronic sectarian violence that they and we worked so hard to put an end to.

The tensions are not new, as Feisal knows. But what is important is that they be resolved and worked through in a context of negotiation, of peaceful endeavor. And I think the prime minister’s call that you just publicized for an end to sectarianism is an important step in that direction. And I think what spokespersons for Grand Ayatollah Sistani may have to say tomorrow after Friday prayers will be important. And what Iraq politicians say and do will be important.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Istrabadi, the U.S. has basically left the country, unable to negotiate a remaining force with the government in Baghdad. Does the United States still have any leverage there, any influence?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, the United States still has, I think, tremendous leverage and tremendous influence.

Iraq is not the only country — I don’t think there’s a country in the world that the United States doesn’t have influence over to some degree, including a place like North Korea, let alone Iraq.

It has tremendous influence there. The Iraqis want to buy American arms. The Iraqis want to have good commercial relations with the United States. They want to have American companies invest in Iraq. At some point, Iraq will want World Trade Organization membership. There are tremendous levers that are at the disposal of the United States.

They may not quite be what they were when Ambassador Crocker was in Baghdad and there were 150,000 troops, but there are still levers that can and should be used by the administration to try to extricate Iraq from its — what appears a descent into another round of chaos.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Ambassador Crocker, you not only need influence. You need a government that has the talent, and the credibility, and the juice, the power to de-escalate the current violence and bring some stability to the country. Does the al-Maliki government have that?

RYAN CROCKER: We have seen a pattern that was very present during my time there that, given the still embryonic development of a new open political system in Iraq, Iraqis sometimes find it difficult to make compromises directly with each other.

They can do it through a mediator. And we played that role many, many times during my time in Baghdad. I think, as Feisal suggests, we need to do it again. We do have influence, precisely for the reasons he stated. We need to use it. And I think, with the new team in the administration, particularly Sec. Kerry, as secretary of state, Sec. Hagel, as secretary of defense, two committed internationalists, we have the people who could have a real impact.

The influence is there. We need to use it.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you gentlemen will be keeping an eye on the situation, as we will here.

Ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Feisal Istrabadi, thank you, gentlemen, both.