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Iraqi envoy quit over failure to prevent IS 'tragedies'

Ambassador Lukman Faily bemoans missed opportunities to head off the Islamic State early on and elaborates on his post-diplomatic plans in an exit interview with Al-Monitor.
Iraqi Ambassador to the US Lukman Faily looks on during a ceremony to repatriate more than 60 Iraqi cultural items which had been smuggled into the US at the Iraqi consulate in Washington, DC, on March 16, 2015.    AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

The rumor mill has been churning steadily ever since Baghdad’s man in Washington decided to call it quits a couple of months ago.

Did he rub someone the wrong way? Is he gunning for higher office?

In an exclusive exit interview this week with Al-Monitor, Lukman Faily insisted the truth is quite different: He’s become convinced that the superficiality of the US-Iraqi relationship is one of the reasons the Islamic State (IS) was allowed to run rampant for as long as it did. And he doesn’t think he can change things from the inside.

“One of the key reasons I’m leaving the service … is our inability to work with each other enough to prevent the tragedies that took place,” Faily told Al-Monitor. “And we had to pay the casualties for it.”

To prevent that from happening again, Faily plans to continue shuttling between the two countries as he leverages his unique talents and experience to help create a true strategic partnership between the two countries. He’s staying tight-lipped for now about the specifics, but said he’d be announcing “very soon” a new venture that he promised will prove "very exciting, and I hope very productive.”

“I don’t want to get out of the seat,” Faily said. “I want to change the chair.”

With IS on the defensive throughout Iraq, Faily credited President Barack Obama's administration for finally waking up to the threat. But Faily said his government’s increasingly dire warnings went unheeded for almost a year, starting with his visit along with then-Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey at the Pentagon in August 2013.

“We said, 'We need you to hit [IS] camps.' The prime minister [Nouri al-Maliki] came here [in October 2013] and said it again,” Faily said. Even after Mosul fell to IS in June 2014, “We kept saying it."

Without recrimination and without naming names, Faily coolly described a trio of factors he blames for the slow response: The United States first viewed IS as an Iraqi domestic problem rather than a global geopolitical threat (Obama’s infamous jayvee team put-down); cuts to the US Embassy staff in Baghdad went too deep; and Obama’s White House had a “mental block” when it came to seeing Iraq as a “project to invest in.” And Faily bluntly confirmed a long-lasting suspicion that the United States had made it clear that it would not act until Maliki was on his way out the door.

“It gave us a clear example that there is what you might call conditionality in this global fight against [IS],” Faily said. “Here the issue is not just playing with politics, but playing with people’s lives.”

A former tech sector manager and longtime Saddam Hussein opponent, Faily served as ambassador to Japan for three years before taking his Washington posting in 2013. He said he had little interest in the ritzy lifestyle, and met with Al-Monitor in a deserted hotel hallway in between visits to the State Department and the Aspen Security Forum.

“I'm not seeking high office in any way, shape or form. That doesn't make me tick,” Faily said in a wide-ranging, hourlong interview. “But making people aware of the challenges — that's what I want to contribute."

US-Iraqi relations, he said, are too dependent on individual relationships that don’t allow for follow-through on big decisions. He sees himself as ideally suited to help build more sustainable bridges between the two countries.

“The Americans like one-on-one. It's easier, I get that. But it doesn't help us in Iraq. It doesn't help the team orientation we need," he said. “There are tons of opportunities that were lost because we did not work as a team, on both sides.”

Faily remains convinced that post-Saddam Iraq has a chance, with US help, to build a new, more stable society. But the project is a long-term challenge, he warned, and cannot succeed without an equivalent investment.

"We don't want our children and our grandchildren to face the kind of challenge we have, which is an identity challenge, which is a generational challenge, which is an Arab Spring challenge and so on. That's what I'm working on. Not just the now," he said.

A certain culture "has been ingrained in our DNA,” he said. “Such as, you need to be a Kurd, you need to be a Sunni, you need to be X, Y, Z to get this position. That's the wrong way of building a state."

What Iraq desperately needs, he said, are founding fathers — selfless men and women who can see beyond their narrow “ism” and their next election and create a new society.

After the state collapsed following the US invasion in 2003, he said, "a new social contract had to be defined between the state and its citizens."

"We still don't know what that social contract is. We're still discovering it," he said. “We have the opportunities, we have the resources, we have the history — but we need to get the right social contract with the right founding fathers moving forward.”

Part of that social contract, Faily insists, is keeping the country together. Although he’s a Kurd and his father was a confidant to the late Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, Faily believes the current Kurdish push toward independence is a mistake.

“Strategically, a referendum [on Kurdish independence] would be a sign of detachment. And that's a dangerous message to convey to all," he said. "It's dangerous. It's dangerous because we are tribal-oriented. It's dangerous because we have other challenges. It's dangerous because IS is trying to put a wedge in our community. People should not play with fire until they fully understand the ramifications."

Rather, he said, Baghdad and Erbil must forge a bond that goes deeper than the mostly transactional relationship that characterizes so much of Iraqi politics today.

“If anybody tells you that the current formula we have — whether it’s the constitution, the political institutions — is good enough for Iraq, then they are substantially missing out on really understanding the casualties we’ve paid,” Faily said. “At this moment, the return on investment is not there.”

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