Tag Archives: Iraq

Why Mosul matters

WASHINGTON – As the Islamic State continues to gain territory in the Middle East, the fall of Mosul, a city of Northwestern Iraq, has been ISIS’ largest victory to date. More than a year after it invaded Iraq’s second largest city, ISIS is still in control of its population of more than one million people.

With nearly daily reports of new land ISIS has conquered, military experts say the U.S. will not successfully counter the Sunni extremist organization without making Mosul a key focus.

The Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul doesn’t mean just a physical dominance over the land and psychological problems for the city’s citizens. An estimated 60,000 Christians fled when the group took over, and those who stayed are under constant intimidation with things like ISIS shutting down schools and destroying rival Shia mosques.

“On a larger psychological scale, which frankly is what’s really hurting our national interest, is that this is not just a problem for Iraq or more for Iraq and Syria,” said Steven Bucci, senior fellow for Homeland Security and Defense Issues for the Heritage Foundation. “It’s a problem for the whole region and is having implications here in the homeland, in that, when an organization like ISIS can stand up to the United States of America and the coalition of its friends, and not be crushed… that’s tantamount to a victory” against the West.

Bucci served as an Army Special Forces officer for more than 30 years and is a former Pentagon official. He believes the U.S. has a vested interest in countering ISIS and needs to take a more aggressive approach because of the movement’s lone wolf attacks brewing in the homeland.

“Their ability to continue to control places like Mosul, to continue to basically thumb their nose at us, even though we dropped bombs on them, continues to allow them to be an incredible recruitment magnet to either get folks to come there and fight with them, or take actions in their homeland like we’ve seen a couple times here in the states,” Bucci adds.

Stabilizing Mosul will be no easy task; it will require re-establishing local leadership and rebuilding a developed city that has almost completely been destroyed. The military force needed to combat ISIS will yield more destruction for the city, but Bucci says things will have to get worse before they can get better. A more aggressive strategy is essential in not only to release ISIS’ tight grip on the Middle East, but to keep the U.S. safe in the future.

“The only way to stop that from happening is to crush them, literally to go in and destroy them,” Bucci said. “They’re not going to negotiate with anybody; they’re not going to make concessions in any way. The only way to remove that magnet is to destroy it.”

If the U.S. does not seriously consider Mosul in its counter-ISIS strategy, Bucci predicts other religious extremists will attempt to take over the city in the future.

“Unless we go in and help them directly, is going to be the Shia militias, which is not necessarily a good thing,” Bucci said. “Their track record of dealing with predominately Sunni population centers has been pretty visible. They get in there and yea, they might chase ISIS out eventually, but their attitude towards their Sunni brothers is colored by the decades of abuse that they got from the Sunnis from under Saddam Hussein.”

As ISIS continues to gain more territory, counterinsurgency strategies must not lose sight of reestablishing Mosul to take back ISIS’ largest victory and control. ISIS will continue to dominate Middle East territories so long as it has a hold on the regions biggest cities. Even with U.S. troops being in the midst of withdrawing from the Middle East, aggressively working to eliminate ISIS is key for both national interest and to keep the homeland safe.

Marine vet honors fallen female troops with 160-mile run


When Marine Maj. Bridget Guerrero (ret.) set out to run a mile for each of the 160 female troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, she never thought that one of their moms would show up to support her along the way.

After training for months, Guerrero set out to run 160 miles around Washington’s Puget Sound from Thursday through Sunday. When she noticed a stranger among the crowd that came out to support her along the four-day trek, Guerrero introduced herself — and quickly realized the woman was the most important person there.

Re McClung, the mother of Maj. Megan McClung, an accomplished triathlete and the first female Marine killed during the Iraq War, had come to wish Guerrero well. She gave Guerrero her daughter’s service coin, which Guerrero kept duct-taped to her arm for the remainder of the race.

“To know she is running for my daughter … and to know that she is running with Meg’s coin and to know that funds she raises will pay forward to the daughter of another Marine — it’s overwhelming,” Re McClung wrote on Facebook.

In an interview Monday after she completed the run, Guerrero, who retired from active duty in 2000, said meeting McClung and running with her daughter’s coin made the purpose of her mission all the more salient.

“She said that Megan would be sitting on my shoulder the whole run,” Guerrero said. “I think we joked around and I said I hoped she wasn’t too heavy.”

Guerrero’s Valor Run honored McClung and the other 159 female service members who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. She hoped to raise $5,000 for various charities, including the U.S. Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which dispenses money in McClung’s honor.

Guerrero said she ran to highlight the sacrifices of servicewomen.

“The media very rarely recognizes female losses, so when the average American thought of those losing their lives in Iraq or Afghanistan, they’d automatically think they were men,” she said.

She also hoped her run would highlight the inroads female Marines are making as new opportunities open to women in the Corps.

“A lot more occupational specialties are available to women, and with that comes a risk of losing your life — and there are 160 who have,” she said. “We want to honor the sacrifices that our sisters have made, and all of us are willing to make, just as much as the men are.”

Guerrero’s race was the second Valor Run since Navy Reserve Capt. Nancy Lacore founded the organization in 2014. Lacore said she hadn’t envisioned her race as something that would inspire followers, but was thrilled that Guerrero was taking it bicoastal.

“It validates for me that this is the right thing to do,” she said. “I never thought someone else would be crazy enough to do it.”

Guerrero, 47, enjoyed robust support along the 160-mile route, which began Thursday in Oak Harbor, near McClung’s hometown, and ended Sunday in Tacoma. At various points along the way she was joined by retired and active-duty service members, family members of deceased troops and in one case a very old friend.

Matthew Denney, a retired Marine who ran alongside Guerrero at amphibious warfare training in the mid-1990s, flew from his home in Bend, Oregon, early Saturday morning and met Guerrero along the third leg of her race. They hadn’t seen one another since 2001, but Denney ran 30 miles by Guerrero’s side.

“I originally tried to come up with a good reason why I couldn’t go run with her,” Denney said. “But this is something that warrants attention and support.”

Guerrero, a lifelong runner who served as a communications and intelligence officer with 4th Reconnaissance Battalion, was a member of the Corps’ marathon, super-marathon and pentathlon teams.

She lives in Edmonds, Washington, with her husband, Dan, son, Sam, and twin daughters, Claire and Ella.

Published in conjunction with Marine Corp Times Logo

A long road from Baghdad: Iraqi refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders in the U.S.

Muhammad Hassoon never heard the crack of the rifle.

The force of the bullet that grazed his scalp four years ago knocked him out cold as he was leaving the gift shop he worked at on Forward Operating Base Falcon in Baghdad, Iraq. His attackers left him for dead – one less collaborator with the Americans. When he came to, Hassoon knew he had to flee the country.

“I didn’t have a choice,” said Hassoon, who is the sole provider for his mother, sister and two younger brothers. “I couldn’t stay in Iraq because they’d kill me, and my family needed the money.”

In June 2011, after the attack, Hassoon was able to find asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where he lived and worked doing laundry for Americans.

He applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, a U.S. government program designed to fast-track Iraqis for repatriation to the U.S. beyond regular refugee quotas allotted to the region. These are Iraqis who had worked for Americans in the country and whose lives were endangered because of this.

The program has brought 13,000 Iraqis like Hassoon to the U.S. since it was initiated in 2008, according to the Department of State. Of these, over three thousand – or 23 percent – have gone to Texas, more than any other state.

The SIV program was slated to end in 2013, but when it became clear that thousands of qualified Iraqis remained, it was extended under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014.

The NDAA made a special allotment to bring 2,500 additional Iraqis to the U.S. To date, approximately 1,500 SIVs have been issued, and less than currently 1,000 remain.

Hassoon waited for over a year, and was finally notified in July 2012 that his SIV had been approved. Within a week, the American government had put him on an airplane and flew him alone to Fort Worth, Texas.
“I arrived here with nothing, spoke really bad English, and didn’t know where to begin,” Hassoon said.

via chartsbin.com

Like Hassoon, Samah Azeez and her family arrived in the U.S. from Iraq with only their immediate luggage.

Her father died in 2006, when she was 17 years old, leaving her mother to provide for Azeez, her four sisters and two young brothers in the heart of the sectarian violence tearing Baghdad apart at the time.

When the Jaysh al-Mehdi began threatening them – her father had been a project engineer for the new Iraqi government – her mother fled with them to Syria and applied for refugee status to the U.S.

After a year and a half of living in what Azeez modestly described as “economically tough” conditions, their visas were approved and the U.S. flew them to Chicago.

Separate from the SIV program, the U.S. government maintains a region-based quota system to admit refugees such as Azeez and her family to America.

121,321 Iraqi refugees have fled Iraq to the United States since 2007, according to the State Department. Almost half of these – 45 percent – have been relocated to California, Michigan and Texas. California alone has received over 20 percent, or 25,391 refugees.

Despite her siblings’ impeccable academic and professional qualifications, they found even minimum wage employment difficult to come by. American universities would not recognize their academic credentials, and prospective employers were too wary.

“It was a shock: you expected something different, completely opposite,” Azeez said. “The U.S. is supposed to be the land of opportunity, but the only kind of jobs we could get were cleaning offices.”

For many Iraqi refugees, coming to the U.S. has meant a new struggle to survive: poverty, lack of employment and language barriers prove for many to be almost insurmountable barriers.

According to a 2010 Georgetown University Law Center study, these Iraqi refugees are “not faring well” in the U.S.

“Most are not securing sustainable employment, and many are not able to support themselves or their families on the public assistance they are receiving. Some have become homeless,” according to the report.

Furthermore, Iraqi refugees arrive in the U.S. already deeply indebted to the government.

Under the terms of the inter-agency United States Refugee Admissions Program, which administers resettling of refugees, new arrivals must repay the U.S. government for the cost of their airfare to the U.S. This interest-free loan is recouped from garnished wages once a refugee finds employment.

In the case of large families, this can run several thousand dollars.

USRAP contracts with non-profit organizations across the country to provide initial resettlement services to newly arrived refugees, including apartment rentals, English-language classes and job training.

Through USRAP, the State Department provides resettlement agencies up to $1,800 per person each month for up to 90 days for basic housing, food and essential services.

For Hassoon, this aid was critical. It allowed him a stable beginning in the U.S., and the chance to develop his basic-level English.

“The government gave me $1,700 and got me an apartment,” Hassoon said. “The first year was really, really hard; I don’t know how I would have made it without it.”

Once this public support begins to fade, however, it becomes increasingly likely that Iraqi refugees will slip through the cracks, making support to this vulnerable population difficult.

“It’s often the case that, as refugees seek to integrate in their community, they relocate to a secondary residence to be closer to fellow refugees and ease linguistic difficulties,” said Jamie Diatta, a Department of Homeland Security Special Assistant who deals with refugee issues.

“This ‘second-tier’ migration makes keeping local refugee statistics difficult within metropolitan areas,” Diatta said.

Azeez considers herself lucky to be thousands of miles away from the current strife in Iraq.

Hardly had the U.S. withdrawn combat units from Iraq, the battle against the Islamic State tore through the fabric of the country, perhaps irrevocably.

According to the UNHCR, there were 88,991 registered Iraqi refugees in the region as of February 2014. The actual number is actually much higher: there is no internationally agreed-upon number of Iraqi refugees or Internally Displaced Persons, as it is impossible to accurately count them.

The Iraqi government’s Ministry of Migration and Displacement estimates an additional 440,000 Iraqis have fled their homes since January 2014 due to the conflict with the Islamic State.

Upon her family’s arrival, the scarcity of decent jobs for her and her siblings meant they constantly struggled to make ends meet.

“The first year here was the hardest because we didn’t speak any English,” Azeez said. “We learned English in school in Iraq, but it wasn’t enough.”

Although she missed several years of schooling in Iraq and Syria, Azeez was able to enroll in a year-long English program at Truman Community College in Chicago. She worked diligently to learn her adopted language, even while laboring in minimum-wage jobs.

With her improved language skills, she was able to find a well-paying job translating Arabic for school children in Hyde Park, and was soon able to help improve her family’s finances.

“It took two to three years for things to get better,” Azeez said. “It was a completely new life.”

Now in his third year in the U.S., Hassoon is also beginning to feel like he’s finally made it.

Starting out as a dishwasher in a local restaurant, he’s worked his way up service industry jobs to become a mall security guard, a position which pays well and offers decent hours.

Hassoon is now regularly able to wire money back to his mother in Iraq, and is helping his brother negotiate the lengthy visa process to hopefully join him.

“This is the U.S.,” Hassoon said. “You have to take it day by day; it’s the only way.”

For both Hassoon and Azeez, the last several years have consisted of constant change and an on-going struggle to improve themselves and the well-being of their families.

Azeez has returned to school, and is now a senior studying biology at Roosevelt University in Chicago. She’s preparing to take the MCAT, and intends to go to medical school. Her dream: to become an orthopedic surgeon.

“This is my passion,” she said. “I really want to make this happen.”

Hassoon is talking with U.S. Army recruiters, and wants to join the Army.

Although he couldn’t understand most of what the American soldiers were saying when he was at FOB Falcon in Baghdad, he loved working with them. More than anything, he wants to join their ranks.

“America’s done so much for me,” Hasson said. “I just want to do something for them back.”

Iraqi Christians forgotten as ISIS threat grows

WASHINGTON—Amid the furor currently surrounding the Islamic State group, the US has remained more or less on the sidelines. There are no coalition boots on the ground, Western, Gulf Arab or otherwise. Barrel bombs and chlorine gas have been used to call President Barack Obama’s “red line” bluff. Perhaps, as some American officials have argued, this is an Arab war, to be fought and won by Arabs. It must be this way, they say, lest ISIS and its extremist brethren use American soldiers on Arab ground as a recruiting tool.

And while all of this rhetoric plays well with non-interventionists and probably is the wisest policy route, that doesn’t mean that the decision to stand by is easy, especially when one considers the probable fate of one of the region’s oldest peoples, the Christians. Also known as Assyrians or, in some contexts, Chaldeans, many of them have been expelled from their homes in Mosul and northern Iraq.

Assyrians are a Semitic Christian people whose ancient homeland reaches from Turkey to Iran. Their mother tongue is Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. Because their presence in the Near East predates the Arab settlement of the region, most Assyrians will, with irrepressible pride, tell you that they are the indigenous people of ancient Mesopotamia.

“It goes back a very long time. Assyrians were at the very center of the cradle of civilization,” said Peter Bityou, director of the Assyrian Aid Society of America.

Bityou was born in Iraq and left for the United States in 1982 to look for work as an engineer. Many of his relatives —including his brother— remain in Iraq to this day and have been displaced by ISIS’s ongoing campaign. Since early 2014, Bityou and the AASA have been instrumental in delivering food, water, kerosene, clothing, medicine, gas stoves, generators, mattresses, blankets and other essentials to the refugees struggling to rebuild their lives.

The AASA and other aid groups must help, Bityou said, because no one else will. Assyrians in Iraq have been abandoned by the central Iraqi government and, in general, are not treated well by the Kurdish Regional Government in the north, he said. While the Kurdish peshmerga, or military force, allows Assyrian refugees to cross into their territory, those fleeing violence are not provided with food or other essentials.

“No one is looking out for the Assyrians. That’s why we have to do for ourselves,” Bityou said.

Martin Youmaran, an executive director of the Assyrian American National Federation, sees ISIS’s persecution of Assyrians as part of a larger pattern of racist oppression and disenfranchisement that goes back many hundreds of years.

“In Iraq, the Assyrian people have faced continuous persecution,” Youmaran said.

Historical fact largely supports that narrative. While Assyrians have peacefully coexisted with their Muslim Arab neighbors for centuries, to say that they were treated well would be a conceptual stretch. Under the Seljuqs and the Ottomans, Assyrians were given three options: convert to Sunni Islam, pay a tax (known as jizia) or face expulsion and possible death. Ottoman discrimination against Christians became so severe that, during World War I, the nationalist government killed 1.5 million Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians —all Christian subjects of the empire.

The treatment of Assyrians during the 1960s and 1970s under the Iraqi Ba’ath Party varied widely. Ba’athist ideology stressed secularism and sought to brush aside religious differences in the service of national unity; Islamic extremism was largely kept at bay. Many Assyrians ascended to high levels of power within the Iraqi government, including Tariq Aziz, a former deputy prime minister who was also one of Saddam Hussein’s closest advisors.

Assyrian expressions of ethnic pride however, met with severe repression.

“People will say that under Saddam, Assyrians were not persecuted. But Saddam hanged three Assyrian nationalists,” said Bityou, referring to the executions of Youbert Shlimon, Youkhana Esho Jajo and Yousip Hermis, who were put to death without trials in 1985.

“What can you call that other than persecution?” Bityou asked.

Saddam’s relationship with Iraq’s many ethnic and religious minorities worsened in the late 1980s, when Kurdish peshmerga forces rebelled against the government. Faced with a secession campaign, the government used conventional weapons alongside unidentified chemical agents —most likely the nerve gas sarin mixed with mustard gas— to eradicate entire villages; according to Human Rights Watch, nearly 2,000 Assyrians perished from gas alone.

Iraqi Assyrians fared even worse after the 2003 American invasion. By 2004, Islamic terrorist groups like Ansar al-Islam and al-Qaeda in Iraq were blowing up Assyrian churches and enforcing hardline sharia law on Assyrian Christian communities. Many Assyrians sought refuge in Turkey, Europe, Syria and the United States.

“In 2003, there were 1.2 million Assyrians in Iraq. Today, less than 300,000,” Bityou said.

ISIS has continued the violence instigated by its predecessors, expelling and in some cases kidnapping Assyrians along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Due to the escalating violence, Youmaran and the AANF are more insistent than ever. Among their most pressing concerns: military intervention against ISIS.

“We want intervention not only from the US but from the UN under Chapter Seven,” Youmaran said, referring to the section of the United Nations Charter that gives the UN Security Council the power to intervene to stop crimes against humanity.

Beyond a foreign offensive against ISIS, Assyrian groups have renewed calls for an autonomous Christian homeland in Iraq’s Nineveh Governorate, known as Nīnwē to the Assyrians.

“We need an internationally protected homeland,” Youmaran said. “We demand that the international community preserve it [the Assyrian homeland in Nineveh], because the Iraqi government cannot.”

Iraqi leader: ISIS still ‘frightening’

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi speaks Thursday morning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. (Tobias Burns/MEDILL)

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi speaks Thursday morning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. (Tobias Burns/MEDILL)

WASHINGTON — Despite a recent series of military losses, the self-proclaimed Islamic State is still more than capable of concerning Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.

“They are frightening their enemies,” he said this morning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “and they’re very good at using the media to achieve this end.”

Al-Abadi is making his first official visit to Washington this week, meeting with President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders to drum up support for his campaign against the insurgent group, which still controls significant portions of the country including major cities Mosul and Anbar, as well as to seek foreign investment in Iraq’s flagging economy.

To combat “the psychological force” of ISIS, Al-Abadi stressed the need for his own government to “remain visible.”

“People want to see the restitution of their government,” he said. “The state must actually be there.”

Last month Iraqi forces were able to recapture the city of Tikrit from ISIS, which had initially taken the city in June of 2014 as part of a major offensive in the north of the country.

Increasing the presence of government in both the minds and day-to-day lives of Iraqis is one of the new administration’s primary objectives. Iraq’s last president, Nouri Al-Maliki, who left office only after threatening what looked like a coup, garnered a reputation for exploiting sectarian rifts within the country and diminishing public services.

Creating a unified perception of government will require international cooperation, Al-Abadi said. This week he meets with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to secure development loans that will fund a host of different economic and security initiatives, including investment in petrochemicals, agriculture and police.

This evening the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will host the prime minister at a reception as he attempts to woo the American business community.

He also addressed questions surrounding his critical comments about Saudi Arabia’s air campaign against Houthi insurgents in Yemen, which prompted a harsh rejoinder from a top Saudi official and astonishment in the press.

“We are very sensitive to wars,” Al-Abadi said in a tone that was markedly more conciliatory. “The end to this war must be soon.”

Iraqi PM says U.S. and Iraq will “stand together”

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stressed the importance of maintaining a continual relationship between Iraq and the U.S. (Ramsen Shamon/Medill)

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stressed the importance of maintaining a continual relationship between Iraq and the U.S. (Ramsen Shamon/MEDILL)

WASHINGTON—Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stressed the importance of maintaining a relationship between the United States and Iraqi governments at a pro-business reception on Thursday.

“If we are partners, we should keep that partnership. It’s important. It’s vital. Partners must trust each other,” Al-Haider said.

The prime minister, speaking at an event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, emphasized his government’s willingness to deviate from the policies of previous administrations.

“If we make things transparent, and if we remove the red tape, you can shrink corruption by a huge amount,” he said.

Al-Haider outlined policy changes that he said will create a better relationship between the public and the private sectors.

“We have started easing visa requirements. A lot of investors now will find it much easier [to enter the country]. We want to make it quite easy for investors to come to Iraq, and truly invest,” he said. “We are introducing taxes. We are asking [the Iraqi]
people to pay for services. The government has to find funds to sustain the war. We cannot continue with free services, with free allocations. We have to make people pay for it. This is a new culture. It’s not easy.”

Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, applauded the prime minister’s “inclusive” government.

Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, applauded al-Abadi for his efforts against the Islamic State. (Ramsen Shamon/MEDILL)

Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, applauded al-Abadi for his efforts against the Islamic State. (Ramsen Shamon/MEDILL)

“He has led the country through significant political reforms and very difficult economic reforms. Despite the difficult year Iraq has had, Iraq is now on track to have record-level oil exports. [He]
has instituted significant reforms on subsidies that are necessary for metro-economic stability. U.S. exports to Iraq have actually risen over the last year. It is a remarkable moment of potential for Iraq,” he said.

Khush Choksy, Chamber of Commerce vice president for Middle East affairs, spoke to the audience about investing in Iraq.

“The mission of the chamber’s U.S. – Iraq program is to increase access by American companies to Iraq’s markets, help expand American investment in Iraq, and to promote dialogue with leaders in the United States and the government of Iraq,” Choksy said.

Retired Iraqi Army Brigadier General Ismael H. Alsodani, also a defense attaché for the Embassy of Iraq in D.C., was “very optimistic” about what he heard from al-Abadi.

“I believe Iraq will be recovering, the economy will be recovering,” Alsodani said. “This is the first time I’ve heard from a prime minister of Iraq [about]
his vision for the future. He will be the man of the age in Iraq.”

Attendee Robert Lindgren, principal of Perkins + Will, was also optimistic.

Lindgren said his architecture and design firm plan to build more universities in Iraq. They have built the now-functioning American University in Sulaymaniyah.

“We do business in Iraq and we do see [corruption], and it’s certainly going to be difficult to deal with, but I think the fact that he’s acknowledging that and trying to deal with that is very important,” Lindgren said. “Projects like universities are ‘A,’ very important for a country like Iraq. And ‘B,’ those are the kinds of things that will help create a civil society…and [help people]
learn how to work together and live together.”

Iraqi official: Decentralization key to nation’s survival

With smoke still clearing from Iraq’s victory over the Islamic State group in Tikrit, Iraq’s prime minister is busy selling his post-conflict vision of his nation.

“If we don’t decentralize, the country will disintegrate,” Haider al-Abadi bluntly declared in a speech Wednesday to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“To me, there are no limitations to decentralization.”

Al-Abadi’s comments came at the end of his first visit to Washington since his appointment as prime minister last summer. He is seeking to secure sustained American support in the struggle against the Islamic State and beyond.

On Tuesday, President Obama pledged $200 million in humanitarian aid for Iraqis displaced by fighting with the Islamic State.

Only eight months in office, al-Abadi is keen to distance himself from his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, whose preferential sectarian policies, many believe, helped precipitate the current crisis with the Islamic State.

“This is not a Shiite government, it just happens to have a Shiite prime minister,” al-Abadi told the audience at the Washington think tank.

Reconciliation of fractious ethnic and sectarian divisions is key to rebuilding Iraq, reviving economic growth and attracting long-term investment, he said.

This can be achieved only by decentralizing power to the local level and transitioning from a state-dominated economy to a mixed economy, according to al-Abadi.

Al-Abadi wants to create a more federal political system, granting greater autonomy to provincial governments, in order to reverse al-Maliki’s centralization of power in Baghdad.

“We must not only win the war, but win the peace,” al-Abadi said. “Our goal is not only to liberate but also to restore a level of civilization worthy of all our people.”

The Iraqi military, Kurdish fighters and pro-Iranian militias have been battling the Islamic State, also called ISIS, since June, when its fighters swept through parts of Iraq with the assistance of local tribes disaffected with Baghdad.

Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit was recaptured by Iraqi forces March 31.

“Al-Abadi has to be a cosmetic surgeon now to put the parts back together,” former Iraqi Brig. Gen. Ismael Alsodani told Medill News Service. “He has a long road ahead.”

Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo

Understanding the Islamic State: A Medill NSJI Event

WASHINGTON – The Medill National Security Journalism Initiative will host “Understanding the Islamic State,” a lunch and panel discussion featuring National War College Professors of Strategy & Policy Dr. Omer Taspinar and Dr. Richard B. Andres, at the National Press Club on Monday, April 6 at 12:15 p.m.

The event is aimed at increasing the media’s knowledge of the Islamic State terrorist group. Taspinar is a leading expert on Islamic radicalization and the author of two books: “Political Islam and Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey” and “Fighting Radicalism with Human Development: Education, Employment, and Freedom in the Islamic World.” Andres is a former Defense Department official who specialized in defense planning, especially related to Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Andres is also a leading thinker on the role of cyber across the national security realm.

The February story of four teenage girls leaving Britain to join the Islamic State in Syria caught the world unaware but they were not unique. Young men and women have been joining ISIS, apparently after significant exposure to its message on social media. Andres and Taspinar are experts who will help the audience understand how this is developing. They will focus on how the Islamic radical movement in 2015 is using technology to appeal to youth to uproot themselves from relatively secure environments to join a radical movement in a distant land full of conflict.

Lunch will be served, but reservations are required.

The Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, begun in January 2009 with the support of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, offers a sequence of courses that equip graduate and
undergraduate journalism students with the knowledge and skills to report on national security issues, undertakes an annual student investigative project with a media partner and sponsors an annual conference for journalists featuring briefings on the most pressing national security issues. It also provides training and background materials on nationalsecurityzone.org as well as webinars for working reporters around the country.

The National War College, founded in 1946, educates future leaders of the armed forces, State Department and other civilian agencies for high-level policy, command and staff responsibilities. The national security policy curriculum emphasizes the joint, interagency, and the multinational perspectives. NWC is located on Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington.


A journalist’s week in Iraq

These photos are from my week in Erbil, Iraq. Click on a thumbnail photo to see all of the photos full-screen.

Most people are surprised when I tell them that I have friends in Iraq. Iraq to most Americans means war, insurgencies and terrorism. Iraqis seem like aliens, living in a completely different reality.

But for the past two years, I’ve spent one month each summer as a mentor for Iraqi students.

Five weeks in the U.S.

Each year the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, which is funded by the State Department through the U.S. Embassy, Baghdad and administered by the nonprofit Meridian International Center, brings 25 Iraqi college students to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Social Media Institute. The students spend five weeks working alongside American students, developing social media strategies for nonprofits in Richmond, Va.

What the Iraqis learn in that exercise helps them then design a project to implement in their hometowns in Iraq. They also participate in conflict-resolution workshops to hone their communication skills. They also are building skills that will help them get jobs when they graduate from college.

People like me serve as mentors; we and a program director spend the summer living in the dorms with the students, driving to historical spots in Virginia, camping and swimming in the ocean – often a first for the Iraqi students.

A week in Iraq

Six months later, I was boarding a plane to Dubai, en route to Iraq. I had tried to prepare myself to be open to a new way of life that I would experience in the short week I stayed in the Iraqi city of Erbil, which is located in the Northern, Kurdish region.

When my director, Michelle Webb, and I arrived in Erbil, it was 2 a.m. We were greeted by a group of our Iraqi students.  I was in Iraq hugging a group of people I thought I might never see again. I couldn’t wait to be reunited with the whole group for a reunion. The reunion was funded by Meridian and it served as an opportunity for everyone to reconnect to discuss projects.

As you might expect, the week flew. I spent a day visiting the Citadel town in Erbil, which is a settlement that has been inhabited for more than 2,000 years. We traveled to Shaqlawa, outside of Erbil, to try the homemade sweets that are a specialty of the residents. There, we walked through the streets sampling sweets and trying Kurdish tea. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the bottom of a large hill where three large tanks sat. My friends told me that they were there as a reminder of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. We climbed onto the former dictator’s tanks on the hillside to take photos.

A few days later, the rest of our Iraqi students in the program arrived in Erbil. We spent two days talking about the projects they plan to implement in their hometowns. There also were workshops ranging from how the students could market themselves for careers to what to expect in the April 30, parliamentary elections.

I attended the workshop about the upcoming elections. The speaker asked whether Iraq is moving toward another dictatorship or a democracy. Students were asked to stand on the side they thought their country was moving toward. More than half moved to democracy but each provided an argument for improving what many consider a still corrupt democratic system.

As I sat there, listening to the arguments for democracy and the ideas to move the country forward, I knew why these students were chosen for IYLEP. In that moment, I saw leaders being born. In the coming years, as these young people take the lead in their country, I know that change for the better is possible.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Healthy discontent is the prelude to progress.” These young people have a vision for change for their country.

My takeaways from my short week in Iraq reinforce what I learned in two summers working with Iraqi students in the Virginia Commonwealth University program. The Iraqi people are resilient, generous and lively – not just the victims of a dictator or a people to be protected by American troops.

Journalists like me can serve both our country and Iraq by providing a more clear picture of the Iraqi population. Too much of the news from Iraq tells us what divides the country, but I learned that there are ways – through young people like those I know — to tell stories of what can unite the country.

JCS Chairman: U.S. and Iraq’s futures are “inextricably linked”

WASHINGTON—The decision to pull American troops out of Iraq by the end of the year is partially because it is not in the Middle Eastern country’s political interest for the U.S. to be there, top U.S. officials said at a committee hearing Nov. 15.

The other reason is because the American military is not guaranteed protection in the region, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said.

General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, said it was strong belief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the U.S. should not leave armed forces in Iraq without any security.

“Our recommendation was for a small permanent footprint and a rotation training,” he said.

Whether a U.S. presence continues in Iraq or not, the two nations’ futures are “inextricably linked,” Dempsey said. The U.S. will put joint U.S. contractor and Iraqi military checkpoints as well as a coordinating center in place in Iraq, and thus will not completely remove its footprint from the area, he said.  The State Department plans to contract roughly 5,000 American security personnel who will protect areas including the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.

The Iraqi military is very capable of fixing and finishing a mission, but not so adept at finding and exploiting an enemy, Dempsey said.  The latter two will remain weaknesses for Iraq in the future.

“We are not completely removing ourselves,” he said. “Our presence in the coordination center provides a stabilizing influence. America’s Armed Forces are proud to be part of the effort.”

Though throughout the hearing it remained unclear exactly what exactly Iraq’s political interests are. Much of the committee’s discussion focused on the fractured communication between the Iraqi and U.S. governments over the number of American troops that would remain in Iraq.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said part of the reason why a decision was never reached was because the Iraqi government never gave the U.S. a solid answer.

“It was very difficult to try and find out exactly the Iraqi position was,” Panetta said.

“We never came to the point where they said, ‘we want this many troops here.’”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued that the blame also belonged to the U.S., who he said didn’t present a firm number to the Iraqi government.

“How can you expect the Iraqis to agree when we didn’t even come up with a proposal?” he asked the committee witnesses.

Some said that the withdrawal of American troops was misguided and premature.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D, Conn., said it was his expectation that a residual force would remain in Iraq.

“We had invested so much blood and treasure that it wouldn’t make sense to just pick up and leave unless we felt that the country was fully prepared to protect their country,” he said.

Lieberman said the lack of an agreement, which caused the total withdrawal of American troops by December 31, was not a success but a failure.

Though McCain said he is eager to bring the troops home, he said there is still a lot of work to be done for troops in the Middle East, such as in the Iraqi Air Force and airspace protection.

“For all the progress we’ve made in recent years, they still have some critical gaps in their capabilities that will go beyond this year,” he said. “And we have a solemn responsibility to stay committed to Iraq’s success.”

Panetta said there are obviously concerns about Iraq’s future, including Arab/Kurd tensions and extremism, and no doubt a lot of pressure has been brought upon the Iraqis.

“The bottom line is that this is not about us,” he said. “It’s about what the Iraqis want to do and the decisions they want to make.”