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Iyad Allawi: Iraq has no clear strategy to fight ISIS | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi speaks during an interview with Reuters in Istanbul July 5, 2014. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The former Iraqi prime minister and current vice president, Iyad Allawi, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Istanbul on July 5, 2014. (Reuters)

The former Iraqi prime minister and current vice president, Iyad Allawi, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Istanbul on July 5, 2014. (Reuters)

Davos, Asharq Al-Awsat—With new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi having passed the 100-day mark in office earlier this year, Vice President Iyad Allawi has given a grim prognosis regarding the political future of the country and the ongoing battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat during his participation in the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, Iraq’s Vice President warned that time is running out for the Abadi government to take the fight to ISIS and reform the political situation in Baghdad. Allawi said the Iraqi government had a rare opportunity to improve its country’s prospects, highlighting internal unity against ISIS and international support. However, he believes this opportunity could be lost if essential reforms and changes are not implemented. Allawi called on the government to move forward with plans to establish a National Guard force, playing down fears that this could create further conflict in the country.

Allawi, a secular Iraqi politician and head of the Iraqiya bloc, previously served as Iraq’s interim prime minister following the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime. His electoral bloc won the largest number of seats in Iraq’s parliament in 2010 but he was ultimately unable to form a government, with Nuri Al-Maliki remaining prime minister. Maliki is also one of Iraq’s three vice presidents.

Asharq Al-Awsat: There have been a number of statements from Iraqi politicians and officials regarding a forthcoming major military operation to liberate Mosul from ISIS. What can you tell us about this? What preparations are currently underway for this military offensive?

Iyad Allawi: This is an important question. I believe that there is some exaggeration on the part of the government regarding what is happening in Mosul and other regions. The information that I have is that there is currently no clear and comprehensive strategy to dislodge ISIS [from Mosul]. Our intelligence efforts are limited while the aerial attacks by the international coalition have had little influence. Although this has, to some extent, prevented ISIS from spreading to other regions, so long as Iraqi security forces are not participating in the battle, they are not taking the fight to ISIS. Iraq’s ground forces must be able to unilaterally carry out surgical strikes and high-level operations targeting ISIS’s leadership and territory. We needs special command forces. This is something that is currently not taking place. However, the most important thing is to carry out a popular mobilization against ISIS in the regions under its control.

Q: Why has ISIS been able to take control of, and keep, this territory in central and western Iraq?

Of course there are reasons why ISIS was able to gain control of this territory, not least weak social infrastructure, as well as social division in Iraq in general. This was caused, among other reasons, by incorrect sectarian policies, marginalization and exclusion. In addition to this, there was the dissolution of the army. Even the army units that were subsequently brought back while I was prime minister were dissolved once more in an unofficial manner—this has also had an effect. So, all of this has contributed to these regions becoming an incubator for the forces of extremism.

Q: What about the ongoing fight against ISIS? You said that the Baghdad government has no clear strategy to confront the group. Why is that?

To be frank there are two dimensions [to this battle]. First, there is the military dimension to liberate these territories, and this of course is important. However, the most important dimension is mobilizing the people and guaranteeing their future. This dimension is being completely ignored, not to mention other important factors in the strategy to combat ISIS. Therefore, I believe the fight against ISIS will be protracted, while we also don’t know what will happen after ISIS is expelled from these regions, in terms of counter-terrorism laws, de-Ba’athification, and political and sectarian discrimination . . . The entire issue needs a clear strategy, and that is something that is not in place now.

Q: Regarding the “popular mobilization,” Baghdad has met with tribal leaders and representatives of ISIS-held territory on a number of occasions over the past year, what influence, if any, will they have in these provinces?

They represent a part of these provinces, but with all due respect to those who say that they are representative of these provinces, they do not represent the main effective actors there. To be frank, selectivity is a serious issue that could lead to social division and increase defections even within the moderate anti-extremist camp. Decision-makers in Baghdad and concerned states in the international coalition have warned against relying on any single group or community, without taking into account other groups in these provinces and the residents in the areas under ISIS control. This is something that could serve to further divide Iraq’s social fabric, which would represent an even graver threat to the country’s future.

Q: We have heard a lot of discussion about the formation of National Guard forces in each Iraqi governorate. What are the chances of this happening? How could these forces contribute to the war against ISIS?

There are many issues that were agreed on before the formation of the current government which are currently being ignored. At the time, all political parties agreed on the formation of a National Guard force which was to be established in a legal manner under the framework of the state. However, this has now been delayed, and even a draft proposal regarding the formation of a National Guard force has been postponed and not put forward to the government for discussion. This delay represents a threat, not just regarding what is currently happening in Iraq, but to the future of the country. It will not be possible for a group of tribes or tribal figures to control these governorates after, God willing, ISIS is expelled. The question is who will guarantee stability in these provinces post-ISIS, particularly when we know that there have been some unfortunate cases of sectarian cleansing there. This is something that is against the principles of the Iraqi state and serves only to further complicate the situation.

Q: Who is carrying out this ethnic cleansing?

This is being carried out by some militias and some people outside of the law, and there are also some unidentified parties who are responsible for this. In some regions—like the Baghdad Belt and Jurf Al-Sakhar and the towns and regions close to Abu Ghraib—there was widespread displacement of people, with people being forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in Iraqi refugee camps, churches, schools and mosques. Arrests, kidnapping and intimidation continue in these areas. This reflects the absence of the state security apparatus in monitoring and dealing with events there. This is something only adds to the complexity in the fight against ISIS.

Q: Even if a National Guard force is agreed and established, these troops will take years to equip and train. Can we wait years to resolve this crisis?

Certainly, time is running out. I spoke with Iraq’s defense minister, and with British, US and Arab representatives and urged them to allow the training of no less than three Special Forces units to carry out the main efforts [against ISIS]. We were waiting for a proposal to be put forward to establish and train a National Guard force within the framework and under the control of the armed forces—this force would not be limited to certain governorates, but be present in all Iraqi governorates. However, no such proposal has been put forward for discussions. Over the past few months, since the formation of the new government until today, Baghdad has failed to fulfill its promise in this regard. The road map that we put forward regarding the National Guard was clear, and the formation of the government was based on a commitment from all sides to this road map, but until now this has not been fulfilled.

Q: What about fears that the establishment of National Guard forces will result in confrontation and fighting between Iraqi provinces, and only serve to further complicate the situation?

This is not true. Of course, there are fears about militarizing society and that this could lead to greater social division if the issue is not clearly defined and if the sectarian political approach escalates to armed combat, God forbid. However, if a clear law is put forward to define the powers of the National Guard, including its arms, jurisdiction, chain-of-command, and so on, then this law would prevent any ensuing chaos. But we are late in drafting and passing this law.

Q: Is it possible to achieve a national reconciliation in Iraq under the current political approach?

I believe that this is the last chance for Iraq to get out of this crisis. Reconciliation is a two-way process. First, we must remove the obstacles to this process, and allow reconciliation with those who must be reconciled with, reintegrating them with society. This includes the Ba’athists who have not carried out any crimes and those who took part in armed resistance against the US, particularly as such resistance is the legitimate right of any people under occupation. So we must reconcile with these parties and bring them into the political process and ensure they do not face any discrimination, marginalization or intimidation. Of course, anybody who has committed crimes must be politically excluded.

The second process must be to move away from the sectarian quota system which does not lead to state-building or strengthening the institutions of the state. However, this reform is being rejected by both Sunni and Shi’ite parties who are benefiting from this sectarian quota system. But I am certain we will not be able to defeat ISIS without real reform and turning over a new page on the past.

Q: But the current government is based on sectarian quotas, so how can the government that is in power based on this system seek to alter it?

That is the government’s biggest test. The big test for politicians and officials now is: are they ready to push Iraq towards social unity or not? Are they ready to sacrifice their positions for this, whether they came to power as the representatives of Sunnis or Shi’ites? If we cling on to power based on tribal or sectarian concerns, we will be destroyed.

Q: You said this is the last chance for Iraq to resolve this crisis and overcome its differences. Why?

This is for three reasons: first, the change that occurred with the naming of a new prime minister and government. Despite a bumpy ride, there has been a change towards democracy. Second, terrorism is threatening all Iraqis and can unite Iraqi society as a whole. This is a threat to all Iraq, not any specific group or community within it. Third, the entire region is inflamed and under threat. The fire in Syria is threatening Iraq, as we can see with the issue of ISIS. So these three issues must push regional states and Iraq’s political elite, without exception, to rescue the country, because Iraq’s destruction, God forbid, will only lead to further disruption in the region.

Q: This risk is facing all regional states, so how can we support further opening up with Arab states to overcome differences?

I have always supported openness with Arab states, despite the position of successive Iraqi regimes. Iraq must not throw off its Arab and Islamic robe, and must not allow any country to use its weakness following the US occupation to dismantle the state.

Q: Are you referring to Iran when you speak of attempts to dismantle the Iraqi state?

Yes, and I previously put forward an initiative for a [regional] summit in Sharm El-Sheikh which was attended by most regional states. Now, I am calling for a second summit. I told the prime minister [Haider Al-Abadi] that we need a regional summit to put forward a road map to get out of this crisis, particularly the most inflamed areas, such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere. Some Arab and Iraqi figures have already agreed to this [summit], while others have refused. However, the majority of people have welcomed this because the fact is that everybody is scared [over the region’s future].

Q: Does this invitation include the Syrian government?

No, Syria is the exception, because the country does not have rule in any sense of the word. However, others can attend. We need a strong initiative from Iraq and I have seen there is willingness for this on the part of Arab states.

This interview was originally conducted in Arabic.