Federal System with Degree of Autonomy Essential for Iraq’s Survival, say Obama Advisors

25.07.2014 – Laura Kokotailo – BasNews, Washington – In its first official account to Congress of the events since the fall of Mosul, senior Obama administration officials proposed the establishment of a “functioning federalist” system in Iraq in a five-point counteractive strategy aimed at the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).The US Department of State’s senior official on Iraq told Congress on Thursday that Iraqi commanders’ lack of initiative and unwillingness to cooperate with Kurdish Peshmerga forces contributed to the sweeping advances of ISIL since early June.

“A functioning federalism would empower local populations to secure their own areas with the full resources of the state in terms of benefits, salaries, and equipment. The national army, under this concept, would focus on securing international borders and providing over-watch support where necessary to combat hardened terrorist networks,” said Brett McGurk, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq and Iran at the US Department of State, at the Senate Foreign Relations hearing on Iraq and ISIL.McGurk’s testimony comes amidst rapidly mounting American concern about the threat ISIL poses not only to US interests in the region, but also perhaps even to the United States itself. ISIL “is more frightening than anything I’ve seen as attorney general,” said US Attorney General Eric Holder, while the same threat keeps FBI director James B. Comey “up at night.” Congressman Eliot Engel at the House Foreign Affairs committee said in another hearing on Wednesday with the same officials, “We cannot allow Iraq to become a safe haven from which another September 11th could be launched.” In the midst of this fear and the recognition of the severity of the threat of ISIL, Senate Republicans in particular, among many others, asked why there has been no US military response yet to mitigate this threat.

Senator John McCain aggressively questioned the panelists, McGurk and Elissa Slotnick of the Department of Defense, asking why the US has not used air power to effectively combat ISIL given the administration is so certain of ISIL’s imminent threat to Iraq, the availability of clear targets, and the Iraqi security forces lack of ability to address this threat. He accused the administration of trying to “fight something with nothing” appropriating a phrase Slotnik used earlier as she was referring to the weak Obama administration stance in Syria.

Some committee Democrats, including Barbara Boxer expressed greater reservation with regard to military options and more support for the Obama administration’s cautious policy, outlined by McGurk and Slotkin. “The situation in Iraq I think is dire now, and I’m not about to reinvest more lives and treasure. The US has sacrificed too much,” she said, defending Obama’s decision to limit US military operations in Iraq.

McGurk articulated the basis for the administration’s decision to maintain a supporting role in Iraq, saying that Iraqis must lead efforts to combat ISIL and that the US’s most effective role will be to train and equip local Iraqi units. He was skeptical of the likelihood of getting the Sunni tribes to organize themselves against ISIL to the same degree that they were mobilized during the 2007 surge against Al Qaeda in Iraq.

One of several senators to address the question of Kurdistan over the course of both the Senate and House, Senator Boxer also inquired as to the role the Kurds can continue to play in resolving the ISIL crisis, as well as asking if the administration would support more autonomy for the Kurds. “The Kurds have long been a strong ally of the United States…[and] I have found them to get what this is all about,” she said.

“We are in a very active conversation with the Kurds about the future,” responded McGurk, emphasizing the positive role they have already played against ISIL, especially in their pragmatic approach to the organization’s threat against Mosul. However, he stressed that their response to ISIL “will work most effectively if done in cooperation/coordination with Baghdad…We support autonomy within the constitutional framework.”

In reference to Mosul, McGurk maintained that the US did everything within its power to insist on proper protection of the city by both Kurdish Peshmerga forces already on the scene and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), in accordance with Iraqi law. However, McGurk argued that the ISF did not adequately appreciate the danger Mosul was in, saying that on June 9, just hours before ISIL’s takeover of the city, “the Government in Iraq expressed confidence that Mosul was not under a serious threat.” The Iraqi government, in its form at that time, was a hindrance to the execution of US policies in Iraq, according to McGurk. This assessment formed part of the basis of the administration’s argument for political reform. It “would be very difficulty” for Prime Minister Maliki to form a new government, added McGurk, answering a question about the most likely politician to win the position during the coming Iraqi elections. The administration’s policy going forward, McGurk articulated, continues to emphasize the reconstruction of Iraqi politics in line with the “functioning federalism” doctrine as part of its ultimate plan to combat ISIL and build stability in Iraq. McGurk emphasized that the other fundamentals of this plan include efforts to strangle the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria, deny ISIL safe space within Syria by training the moderate opposition there, and helping Iraqis take control over their sovereign space by means of a federalist approach.