Iraq’s ambassador to US: war with ISIS 'acid test' of US-Iraq ties

Lukman Faily, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, says that in light of the urgency of the Iraq crisis, “we will not be in a position to choose our partners and whoever is available to help us in our survival war, then we will take that.”

al-monitor Iraqi Ambassador to the US Lukman Faily (R) watches as his country's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (C) greets US Secretary of State John Kerry in Baghdad, June 23, 2014. Photo by Office of Ambassador Faily.

Topics covered

terrorism, syria, saudi arabia, military intervention, john kerry, iraq, iran

Jun 26, 2014

Iraq’s ambassador to the United States said June 26 that his country’s preference is to rely on US military assistance to battle the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). 

Asked about reports of Iranian drone flights and provisions of military equipment to Iraq, as well as Syrian airstrikes on ISIS forces inside Iraq, Ambassador Lukman Faily, who met with Al-Monitor at his office in Washington, said that if US military aid is not forthcoming, “we will not be in a position to choose our partners and whoever is available to help us in our survival war, then we will take that.”

Faily, who was in Baghdad for US Secretary of State John Kerry’s meetings with Iraqi leaders this past week, said many Iraqis are asking if the United States will “support a democratically elected government in this war of aggression by an international terrorist organization.”

Iraq’s ambassador, who was born in Baghdad and completed the April 2014 Boston marathon, said that Baghdad is desperate for air support in its battle with ISIS.

“Any air supremacy support provided to Iraq will surely have a significant effect. That to us is a key game changer,” Faily said.

“We have had offers from the Syrians before and we declined them,” he said. “But it seems that the support that we sought from the US is not coming in a timely manner to deal with our urgency, which is more or less putting us in an uncomfortable position in seeking support from whoever is available on the ground.”

Faily expressed hope that Iraq’s neighbors could rally to provide “unusual” support in this time of crisis in Iraq.

“Let me repeat that no one is immune from it,” he said. “If our neighbors think that this can be contained in Iraq, then unfortunately they need to relook at the history and relook at the core ideology of these terrorist organizations.”

The text of the full interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  The New York Times reports today that Iran is flying drones in Iraq and supplying military equipment to Iraq. Does the Iraqi government expect further military support from Iran? What is the nature of the Iraqi request for assistance to Iran?

Faily:  As you know, we have a major challenge facing our military capabilities to deal with the ongoing offensive from ISIS, which does mean that we need to revamp our military capabilities, and in that aspect of it, Iraq is relying on the US to provide that capability. If that capability is unable to be fulfilled in dealing with the urgency we have on the ground, unfortunately that means that we will not be in a position to choose our partners and whoever is available to help us in our survival war, then we will take that.

Al-Monitor:  Do you expect Iran to provide more support? Would they provide troops at any point?

Faily:  We know that the Iranians are anxious; they are worried themselves, because ISIS were for a while on their borders in the Diyala province, so to them that is an immediate threat to their national security. We also appreciate that the common fight against terrorism has to be a regional and a global one. The United States and Iraq can work together, we welcome that, we would like to work with all three in our combat against terrorism.

Al-Monitor:  Nickolay Mladenov, the [UN] secretary-general’s special representative in Iraq, yesterday called for a military complement to a political solution in Iraq. Al-Monitor broke the news Wednesday that Iraq has submitted a letter to the UN secretary-general requesting military equipment and logistical assistance. Could you please explain in more detail the nature of your request, and your expectations for support from the international community?

Faily:  The threat we face is a regional threat. It will destabilize the region if not the globe in relation to geopolitics and in relation to, for example, the supply of petrol for the world economy. That is because of the richness of Iraq and the geographical position of Iraq. In a way we feel like it has to be an international response; we have provided the letter, highlighting that we are under an aggression from ISIS and that we seek international support. The US and others have asked us to approach the UN as part of their better understanding of the scale, and for Iraq to say that we are seeking international support. Not to make the support only bilateral, but to make it a multilateral situation. And this is more or less the core of it.

The UN understands the urgency of the situation they have their representative on the ground, so he has a good understanding of that, and we are more or less providing an opportunity for the international community to support Iraq.

Al-Monitor:  Syrian planes attacked ISIS positions in or around the Iraqi border town of Qaim this week. Does Iraq welcome this action as assistance from Syria against ISIS? Does Iraq consider itself allies with Syria against ISIS? 

Faily:  The situation as you know is crucial and any air supremacy support provided to Iraq will surely have a significant effect. That to us is a key game changer. That is why we have been asking the US for over a year now for Apache helicopters to provide us with air supremacy. Unfortunately, at that time, if we had that capability, ISIS would not have provided a threat. They had camps, they were in deserts, they were outside residential areas, and there would not have been any collateral damage and so on. Because that was not provided, unfortunately now we are in the position where we are saying that anybody’s support would be welcome here with the immediate threat to our survival.

We have had offers from the Syrians before and we declined them. But it seems that the support that we sought from the US is not coming in a timely manner to deal with our urgency, which is more or less putting us in an uncomfortable position in seeking support from whoever is available on the ground.

Al-Monitor:  In these strikes, did Syria offer or did you request its assistance?

Faily:  Whatever offer we get in dealing with ISIS we will certainly look at it in a favorable way.

Al-Monitor:  You mentioned that this war is a regional security challenge. Would Iraq support a regional security arrangement, among neighbors of Syria and Iraq? How would that fit with President Obama’s call for ramping up counterterrorism cooperation?

Faily:  Terrorism is a theme in the region now. Sectarianism is becoming a theme in the region and they are complementing each other. ISIS are not Sunnis but they are wearing the clothes of the Sunnis, projecting to the world that they represent Sunnis but we know for a fact that they don't. In addition to that, the geopolitical importance of the Middle East in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere is too important to be dealt with internally in itself and it is too crucial, for example, [that] the Europeans, who are just on the other side of the shore, for them to be a standby for NATO or for the US and even the UN, so this is why we see that it is a regional problem, as much as Syria has been a regional problem for the last three years which hasn’t been addressed. Iraq is becoming that problem as well, unfortunately.

To the Americans, every day they are looking at both as one theater because of that urgency. We have an immediate challenge ourselves, and we think that regional powers have to discuss the threat because of more or less the zero-sum theme in the region that is not helping anybody. We expect to have more cooperation in this. Regional powers could provide a win-win approach to the situation. So we don’t see why shouldn’t the Iranians and the Turks and the Saudis and the Iraqis and the Jordanians and others, and the Lebanese and others, have a serious discussion as to how we can carve off this tumor in our body. That is what we are talking about. It can engulf the whole region, nobody is immune — all countries in the region are fragile to this situation. I would say even European countries are fragile from jihadists going back to their homeland or going back to the United States. That’s why we are saying this is a regional issue.

Al-Monitor:  You were in Baghdad this week when Secretary of State John Kerry met with Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki and other Iraqi leaders. Are you pleased with the extent of US political and military support for Iraq at this stage? What messages are you carrying in your meetings with US policymakers?

Faily:  Iraq is a democratic country. We recently had a democratic, fair election. The US is our strategic partner of choice. We have a strategic framework agreement with the US. Our current situation is an important acid test to the strength of that relationship between the two countries. Serious questions are being asked back home as to how much support will the US provide to a democratic government who is under an aggression from an international terrorist organization. That question is still pending. Secretary Kerry and other officials have highlighted and have specifically said that they will provide help and support. However, the serious questions are related to the sense of urgency in providing us support. We understand that there are processes in the US that have to be followed. We welcome that, but we also know that the situation on the ground may not allow for a long protracted methodological process of decision-making in the US because of the urgency on the ground.

That is the key question. A lot of people in different positions in government in addition to the people of Iraq are asking us, would the US support a democratically elected government in this war of aggression by an international terrorist organization? That is a serious question for the US to answer.

Al-Monitor:  What is Iraq’s position on Turkey’s role in the current crisis? Has it done enough to close its borders to ISIS infiltration?

Faily:  We think that as I said before, no one is immune from the tumor of terrorism in that region. We have suffered from it before, Turkey has suffered from it. We hope that they feel the need for strong collaboration in addressing that common threat. At this moment, we think that there is an opportunity for Turkey to work closely with us, as much as there is an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to work closely with us. To repel, to put an end to this sense of injustice in Iraq we feel that our neighbors do not appreciate that situation. We are not under normal circumstances. We certainly need to be supported in an unusual way, rather than in just a normal way of saying, well this is an internal Iraqi situation, this is not an internal Iraqi situation, this is a regional threat.

Al-Monitor:  You mentioned Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Maliki last week lashed out at Saudi Arabia saying the kingdom was “responsible for supporting these groups financially and morally, and for the outcome of that which includes crimes that may qualify as genocide.” This was a very strong statement. Based on what you said, is this being modified a bit to encourage cooperation?

Faily:  What we are saying is that we thought for a length of time that we should approach the UN. We have asked that [because of] the terrorist attacks on Iraq. This recent one and for the last few years should be considered as genocide, because of the viciousness of 30-60 car bombs a month in populated areas. So that is what we are talking about when we talk about genocide.

That is one area which we think regional players, both who have borders and can secure their side of the border, can significantly help us. So we know for a fact that there are jihadists from all walks of life from different countries in Iraq, so we know that there hasn’t been enough done from our neighbors to try to help us in our fight against terrorism. And let me repeat that no one is immune from it. If our neighbors think that this can be contained in Iraq, then unfortunately they need to relook at the history and relook at the core ideology of these terrorist organizations; they are transnational. And they will not be confined within Iraq.

Al-Monitor:  In his meeting with Secretary Kerry this week, Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani referred to “new realities” in Iraq. Those new realities include the Kurdistan region exporting oil via Turkey, which is opposed by the Iraqi government, and seizing Kirkuk this month after ISIS moved into Iraq. What is the state of the negotiations and politics between Baghdad and Erbil at this point? How do you expect these issues to be resolved?

Faily:  At this moment, there is a pause in the negotiations because of the immediate threat on the ground. So we have a common enemy, and we are trying to work together to address that common enemy. Other issues such as oil, or others, are put on the side for now. These issues will be addressed as part of the negotiation for the government formation and following that. So we will look at those issues at that time as to the oil and other issues.

The Kirkuk situation is part of the constitution, so that has to be addressed. What we say in the central government is that the KRG and others are under an important juncture in their relationship with the central government. We, all Iraqis, have voted for a constitution which talks about Iraq as one. The constitution, we think, should be applied for all; until that constitution is changed, everybody, including the KRG, should play their part based on the constitution which they have signed. That is the current status.

Al-Monitor:  When you say the current crisis now is focused on the terrorist threat and there topics are differed, is Baghdad pleased with the extent of Kurdish cooperation at this point?

Faily:  We think that there are areas for further cooperation. There is certainly a sense of urgency; we highlight that no one is immune from it and we have also said that we need to work together to repel this tumor in our body. For example, areas where sensitive minorities live — such as in Ninevah valley — these are Christians and other type of minorities who are immediately, and to be honest, they are already being adversely impacted by this aggression such as by ethnic cleansing and other displacements; abuses to minorities are taking place by ISIS. And we think that the KRG government should work closely with our central government in trying to minimize the impact and bring some normality to the lives of those minorities, because they do feel that they are under immediate threat of survival and not just to their identity.

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