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As Obama Considers Drone Strikes in Iraq, Could U.S. Military Action Worsen Sectarian Conflict?

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Over the weekend, militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized the northern town of Tal Afar after a fierce fight. Many fear Iraq could disintegrate as ISIS takes more cities. Shiite militias are now fighting alongside the Iraqi army in an effort to retake cities from the control of Sunni militants. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged today the United States is considering launching drone strikes inside Iraq to help shore up the Iraqi government. He also said he is open to talks with Iran on how Washington and Tehran could work together to help the Iraqi state. The United States appears to be moving closer to launching airstrikes. The USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier has recently arrived in the Persian Gulf. The carrier is accompanied by the USS Philippine Sea guided-missile cruiser and the USS Truxtun guided-missile destroyer, both of which carry Tomahawk missiles that can reach Iraq. The United States has also begun evacuating some employees from its massive embassy in Baghdad. Meanwhile in Britain, former Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing widespread criticism after he suggested the current crisis is not linked to the 2003 U.S. and British invasion of Iraq. Blair said, “We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that 'we' have caused this. We haven’t.” To talk more about the crisis in Iraq, we are joined by Iraqi-American political analyst Raed Jarrar.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Obama administration is reportedly considering reaching out to Iran to find ways they could work together to help shore up the Iraqi regime as Sunni militants continue their offensive. U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration may use the Iran nuclear talks starting in Vienna today to broach the subject of the Iraq crisis with envoys from Iran. On Friday, President Obama ruled out sending U.S. combat troops back to Iraq but left open other military options.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq, but I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraq security forces, and I’ll be reviewing those options in the days ahead. I do want to be clear, though: This is not solely or even primarily a military challenge. Over the past decade, American troops have made extraordinary sacrifices to give Iraqis an opportunity to claim their own future. Unfortunately, Iraqis’ leaders have been unable to overcome too often the mistrust and sectarian differences that have long been simmering there, and that’s created vulnerabilities within the Iraqi government as well as their security forces.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Unnamed U.S. officials told The Washington Post that the Obama administration is now considering sending drones to Iraq. The USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier has recently arrived in the Persian Gulf. The carrier is accompanied by the USS Philippine Sea guided-missile cruiser and the USS Truxtun, also a guided-missile destroyer, both of which carry Tomahawk missiles that can reach Iraq. The United States has also begun evacuating some employees from its massive embassy in Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the weekend, militants from ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, seized the northern town of Tal Afar after a fierce fight in the city of 200,000 people. Shiite militias are now fighting alongside the Iraqi army in an effort to retake cities from ISIS control.

This comes as ISIS is claiming it had massacred 1,700 Shiite soldiers in the city of Tikrit, but the claim has not been verified. Graphic photos have also been published online showing masked Sunni militants shooting dead captured Iraqi soldiers.

Meanwhile, in Britain, former Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing widespread criticism after he suggested the current crisis is not linked to the 2003 U.S. and British invasion of Iraq. Blair said, quote, “We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that 'we' have caused this. We haven’t. We can argue as to whether our policies at points have helped or not; and whether action or inaction is the best policy and there is a lot to be said on both sides. But the fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the region not outside it.”

To talk more about the crisis in Iraq, we’re joined by Iraqi-American political analyst Raed Jarrar. He’s joining us from Washington, D.C.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Raed. We’ve spoken to you so many times during the Iraq War. Why don’t you respond first to what the former prime minister of Britain said, that it has nothing to do with the U.S. invasion and occupation, and the British, as well, of Iraq?

RAED JARRAR: Oh, I think it has everything to do with the U.S.-, British-led invasion and occupation. The idea of destroying the strong central government and creating three or more partitions in Iraq was heavily promoted at that time. It was promoted sometimes on the political level, but many times on the demographic level. We saw, during the occupation of Iraq, millions of Iraqis were displaced inside the country. Sunnis were kicked out of what we call now Shiite provinces, and Shiites were kicked out of what we call now Sunni provinces. Same happened with Kurds and Christians. So this ethnic cleansing happened during the occupation, laying grounds for making this partitioning a reality. So, I think, in retrospect, what’s happening in these few weeks of, you know, like an uprising in these Sunni-dominated provinces in Iraq can be directly traced to the divisions that were installed by the U.S.-led occupation in 2003.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Raed, I’m reminded of that very mundane, but prophetic, warning of Colin Powell to George Bush—if you break it, you own it—that in reality, the invasion of the United States and of Britain in 2003 really, it appears, has created instability still unresolved.

RAED JARRAR: Correct. And in addition to that, the U.S. is still interfering in Iraq. Although the last U.S. soldier left the country at the end of 2011, the U.S. continues to supply the Iraqi central government with weapons, training and other military assistance. This year alone, the U.S. is sending billions of dollars’ worth of jet fighters and other weapons. We just included $150 million in the defense appropriations bill for training Iraqi forces, although many human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have flagged a number of Iraqi security forces and militias as human rights abusers that the U.S. should stop funding. So in addition to the military funding, of course, there is a lot of support that—to legitimize the Iraqi central government. So this week’s narrative from the U.S. side is a good example of how the U.S. has been taking one side in this conflict all along. It has been arming and supporting one side of the conflict, and this side happens to be the Iraqi central government and the militias affiliated with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby confirmed over the weekend the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush was en route to the Persian Gulf. He discussed the possibility of the U.S. carrying out what he termed “kinetic strikes.”

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY: One of the capabilities that—that we are tasked to provide options for would be kinetic strikes, which can be incredibly effective and powerful, when done the right way, to achieve objectives. … What we have is an armed militant group and network threatening the internal security of Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your understanding of what these, quote, “kinetic strikes” are, also the whole discussion about the drone strikes that could take place?

RAED JARRAR: I think it’s another fancy name of a U.S. military intervention. We have heard so many different words describing U.S. military interventions in Iraq and the region. And whatever you name it, I think, from the Iraqi perspective, this will be yet another example of a U.S. military strike on Iraq that will not be a part of the solution. The U.S. has been bombing Iraq since 1991, so it’s been 13 years of bombings, bombardments, or like 23 years if you count all of the years of the sanctions. And none of these campaigns were ever a part of a solution. The U.S. has historically been a part of the problem. So I think if the U.S. were to attack Iraq yet again, this will add another layer of complexity. It will make the situation inside Iraq worse, and it will threaten the U.S. interests in the region and the world, because the U.S. will become an active participant in this very bloody conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re talking to Raed Jarrar. He is an Iraqi-American blogger, political analyst, joining us from Washington, D.C. What should the U.S. do? What should happen with Iraq? What will happen with the Iraqi regime? We’ll talk about al-Maliki, the prime minister. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran would respond to any call for assistance from the Iraqi government as it fights an Islamist insurgency.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: [translated] Should the Iraqi government request any aid from us, we will of course address it. However, we haven’t received any request for specific aid so far. We are prepared to provide help within the frameworks of international law and the official request of the Iraqi government and nation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Raed Jarrar, I’d like to ask you about not only the role of Iran right now and the potential for greater cooperation between the United States and the Iranian government, but also the role of Saudi Arabia and its relationship to ISIS.

RAED JARRAR: Let me start by saying the armed uprising in six Iraqi provinces has many other players from the Sunni side or the local population side. There has been a lot of focus on ISIS because it makes a good media story. It’s this crazy group. Everyone is an expert now on ISIS and where it came from. And it tells a compelling story for a U.S. intervention: There is an extremist terrorist group that is threatening a legitimate central government that is our friend. That is the narrative now. I think that is important to unpack and deconstruct, because, on the one hand, ISIS is one of many players in this uprising. It’s really naive to believe that one crazy terrorist group can take 50 percent of Iraq’s territory in a week. There are many other players, including—I think the most important players are tribal leaders in all of these provinces, and their armed militias, and former Iraqi officials from the Saddam Hussein government, led by the former vice president, Izzat al-Douri, who runs a group called al-Naqshbandi, a group. There are other smaller players like the Iraqi Islamic Army, the Mujahideen Army, the 1920 Brigades. There are, I would say, at least 12 other players. So it’s more indigenous. The vast majority, I would say, maybe almost everyone who’s fighting, is an Iraqi, unlike what the image that is being drawn by the Iraqi authorities.

On the other hand, there is a central government, of course, that is being supported by the United States. It’s mostly comprised of Shiite parties, and the army is almost exclusively Shia. And it’s surrounded by many local and foreign militias and forces, which is a good leeway to answer your question. The last few days witnessed an actual military participation by Iran. According to The Guardian, there are a couple thousand Iranian troops that entered Iraq. They’re most likely from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The first images of the first Iranian to be killed in Iraq from this Iranian Revolutionary Guard surfaced a couple of days ago online, and it seems that his funeral is held today in northern Tehran. From reading the captain’s biography online, the one who died in Iraq, it seems that he’s younger. He’s been sent to Syria before. So, it seems that there is an actual military involvement by Iran.

Saudi Arabia and other players have been involved very much in Iraq, as well. Saudi Arabia maintains strong relationships with the former Iraqi officials, including Izzat al-Douri, the vice president. And there are some rumors about Saudi Arabia supporting some other militant groups in Iraq. Let me take one step back and say that this regional intervention, whether it came from Iraq or—excuse me, from Saudi Arabia or Iran or Turkey or Jordan or whatever, these are also consequences of the destruction of the Iraqi central government in 2003, when Iraq had a legitimate, strong government. All of these neighbors existed around Iraq, but they were never able to manipulate the country and use their proxies for civil war inside the country before. And now, of course, with the new realities, this is how Iraq looks. I think everyone from the region has their hand in Iraq supporting one horse in that race.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, there’s been the whole question of whether the U.S. should intervene. The U.S. has been intervening to the tune of millions, if not billions, of dollars, with supporting weapons going to Iraq and the government of al-Maliki. Can you talk about al-Maliki, who he is, and what you feel needs to be done in Iraq, as an Iraqi yourself?

RAED JARRAR: I mean, as an Iraqi, I think there are a million things that have to be done in Iraq. It is extremely messy. And I think Iraq is going now through the worst stage in its contemporary history. There are real doubts that Iraq can maintain its territorial integrity, because the very national identity of Iraq has been destroyed, and now maybe overwritten by Iraqi sectarian and tribal identities. We’re talking about issues that need decades to deal with, and the current Iraqi government is completely dysfunctional and incapable of resolving any of these issues.

So, I think, from an Iraqi perspective, there isn’t really an easy solution, other than attempting to start a real dialogue. And so far, the Iraqi government has refused to start any dialogue. They’re calling any—anyone who is supporting the uprising in the six provinces, anyone who is not a, you know, complete supporter of al-Maliki, they’re calling them al-Qaeda supporters and ISIS members. I mean, for God’s sake, yesterday the Iraqi official channels were calling the governor of Mosul and the president of the Parliament, who happen to be brothers from al-Nujaifi family—they were calling both of them ISIS supporters. So, it’s—”ISIS supporters” is just a code for Sunni or, you know, not a member of the ruling elite now. So saying—I mean, from an Iraqi perspective, it seems that that is the most easy first step, which is sitting around the same table and stopping this polarization and calling anyone who does not agree with the government policies a terrorist.

From a U.S. perspective, as an American, I think we do have an easier mandate, an easier solution, and that starts with not interfering militarily. That is easier than having a proactive solution. From the U.S., I think not sending troops, not sending, you know, more airstrikes, not sending training and weapons is actually a step in the right direction. And there are other obligations that the U.S. can handle that are less controversial, such as humanitarian aid for refugees and IDPs and other nonpolitical issues.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Raed, how do you explain the breathtaking collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of what is not really a large guerrilla force lined up against them?

RAED JARRAR: It is surprising for an outsider, I think, to see how fast it fell. But in reality, it did not really fall in a week. It fell in a long time. Some people argue a decade; some people argue a few months. If we just go back to January of this year, the Iraqi forces attacked two unarmed, peaceful protest sites in Iraq—one in Hawija near Kirkuk and one in Fallujah. And this created a huge backlash against the Iraqi government in Sunni-dominated areas. There has been attacks against and, you know, by the Iraqi army and the militias supporting it in Fallujah and Anbar for at least the last four months. They’ve been throwing bombs on residential neighborhoods, getting attacked back. So this has been going on, and I think the building the infrastructure for a counter-government attack has been in the making for quite a time. So it wasn’t very surprising for Iraqis who have been following the situation, but I think it is still a surprise that armed forces that have been funded by tens of billions of dollars would just collapse in a couple of days. It just shows how fragile and dysfunctional the entire Iraqi military system is. And the fact that the Iraqi Parliament failed to meet to pass martial laws, because they couldn’t get a quorum, shows how dysfunctional the political system continues to be, if—

AMY GOODMAN: Raed, I wanted to ask about what’s happening with the Kurdish pershmerga forces, what role they’ve been playing in the wake of the ISIS insurgency, what’s happened with the takeover of Kirkuk by the Kurds. This is Brigadier General Sherko Fatah speaking Saturday.

BRIG. GEN. SHERKO FATAH: [translated] Because of the security situation in Kirkuk, peshmerga forces have taken over the positions of the 12th Infantry Brigade, who abandoned their posts, and soldiers abandoned their positions and fled. Because of the collapse of the morale, they could not defend themselves, and therefore they fled. In order to prevent the Islamic militants from taking over these positions and threaten Kirkuk city, higher orders were issued, first to move and take these positions.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance, Raed Jarrar, of the Kurds taking over Kirkuk in this oil-rich city in northern Iraq? And then there’s this breaking news: John Kerry has just spoken, the secretary of state, saying the U.S. is opening talks [sic] with Iran over Iraq, won’t rule out military cooperation. He says U.S. drone strikes may well be an option to stem ISIL advances in Iraq. But respond first on the Kurds.

RAED JARRAR: It’s very interesting to see the dynamic now between the uprising forces in the six Sunni provinces and the Kurdish authorities, because the Iraqi central government’s media have been criticizing the Kurdish authorities in the last couple of days, saying that they betrayed their relationships with al-Maliki, that they have been coordinating with the rebels, with the former Baathists, with the—like this type of accusations. Things on the ground actually suggest that there might be some coordination between the uprising forces and the Kurdish forces, because there were very minor clashes between the two sides, and so there might be actually some sort of political coordination. Keep in mind that the former Iraqi vice president of this regime, Mr. Tariq al-Hashemi, who fled to Turkey a few years ago, came out yesterday in support of the uprising in these six provinces. He called it the Iraqi Spring—very romantic, you know, for how destructive the situation has been. But Mr. al-Hashemi maintains very strong relationships with the Kurdish side. So, many people were reading that as maybe ha has been leading these coordinations between what’s going on in the six Sunni provinces and Kurdistan.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to correct something in the breaking news: Kerry said that the U.S. is open to talks, not “has opened talks.” But the significance of this?

RAED JARRAR: Well, so, it’s not very significant. You know, I have been personally speaking about how the U.S. and Iran are in the same bunker when it comes to Iraq. I’ve been saying that for over six or seven years now. And it doesn’t add up for U.S. audiences, because we’re used to seeing the U.S. and Iran at odds. They are at odds in other parts of the Middle East and the world, but in Iraq the collaboration started very strongly from day one. Iran played a strong role in toppling the former Iraqi government, and the U.S. played a very proactive, collaborative role with Iran all along. So that never stopped. Saying that they are going to add that to a negotiating table does not make any sense. They’re, both sides, fighting on the same side. It’s like saying the U.S. and Maliki will negotiate over how to fight against the uprising. Well, they’re on the same side.

If you want to negotiate with someone, I would say we have to reach out to the other side, people who are involved in the uprising, whether they are tribal and youth leaders in these six provinces or former officials who are flooding back to the country, former army officers who are running these operations—running fighter jets, for God’s sake. There are two fighter jets that were seen yesterday attacking current Iraqi army, flying out of the—you know, out of Mosul. So it just gives you a hint of how there is real institution behind the uprising. You can’t train two pilots in a day, you know. These people know what they’re doing. We’re not sure who they are, but I think bringing them to the table is the right step, rather than negotiating with people who we agree with and people who we’ve been supporting all along.

AMY GOODMAN: Raed Jarrar, I want to thank you for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to follow this critical situation in Iraq and the greater region. Raed Jarrar is an Iraqi-American blogger and political analyst, joining us from Washington, D.C.

When we come back, we’re going to Rio de Janeiro, to Brazil, to talk about the World Cup. Stay with us.

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