Nujaifi discusses Iraqi crisis with US officials, academics

During a visit to the United States, Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi was surprised by US officials' critical statements regarding Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and offered his views on a solution to the Anbar crisis.

al-monitor Iraqi Council of Representatives speaker Osama al-Nujaifi (L) and US Vice President Joe Biden shake hands before a meeting at the White House, Washington, Jan. 22, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.

Topics covered

sunni-shiite conflict, nouri al-maliki, iraqi security situation, iraqi central government, iraq crisis, iraq, anbar province

Jan 28, 2014

It seemed surprising, even to Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, that US officials addressed their ally, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in a clearly critical tone that reached the point of resentment. This resentment was sensed throughout the last seven days, during the meetings attended by Nujaifi, a prominent Sunni figure, in Washington.

“US officials’ opinions and positions were much more intractable than I had expected before getting to Washington,” said Nujaifi to Al-Hayat. Several members of parliament (MPs) from the delegation accompanying the Iraqi parliament speaker stated that they were surprised by US officials. The latter expressed, for the first time, angry opinions about Maliki's performance and specifically about the current crisis in Iraq and its flare-ups in Anbar. They told Al-Hayat that they heard Secretary of State John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama clearly criticize Maliki, in front of Nujaifi and the accompanying delegation (which did not include Shiites), regarding the management of the current crisis. The MPs also indicated that the US officials were concerned that Maliki’s campaign in Anbar was a maneuver to postpone elections and impose new conditions that contradict democracy.

US officials seemed concerned about the activities of armed groups in Anbar, the confrontation with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the ensuing assistance to Iraq, including equipment, weapons and information. Yet, they also voiced their fear that the military campaign in Anbar would turn into a settling of political scores and a human tragedy, accompanied by tens of thousands of displaced persons and refugees, especially after the Iraqi army’s shelling of Fallujah and Ramadi that led to the death of civilians.

Nujaifi clearly expressed his fears and concerns in a speech addressed to an exceptional political American and Iraqi audience at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. “At this point, Iraq is at a crossroad and the United States must help it in its transition into a successful democratic state,” he said.

Nujaifi stressed the importance of the US role in Iraq, clarifying that, “Legally and ethically, the United States should continue to support the political process developed in Iraq, which will be a basis for an effective democratic experience that leads Iraq to be a successful and influential state in the region.” He insisted that terrorist activities led by al-Qaeda do not only affect Shiites, which is a misconception circulating in the United States and among its influential departments that needs to be changed. “This is a common mistake, since the Sunnis sacrificed many souls in their fight against al-Qaeda. Members of the Sahwa forces have expelled, in cooperation with US and Iraqi forces, al-Qaeda and its terrorists,” said Nujaifi.

In this regard, Nujaifi said, “The big mistake committed by the Iraqi government is not just that it disregarded the members of Sahwa forces who fought al-Qaeda, but it also prosecuted them by instigating vexatious proceedings and refused to implement the agreement that allowed them to join the Iraqi armed forces. The policy of exclusion and marginalization of Sunnis and the arrest of thousands of them for illegal reasons provided a suitable ground for the return of al-Qaeda.”

Answering the questions of Kenneth M. Pollack, a senior researcher at Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Nujaifi said, “Iraq would suffer a fatal mistake if it chooses to selectively implement the laws and subject the judiciary to the legislative power, thus making the parliament lose any ability to act as a real legislative power.” Nujaifi said that his talks with officials from the US administration and Congress focused on that it is “not easy to turn the page on Iraq in Washington. The United States would be responsible for any deterioration of the Iraqi crisis, if it insisted on omitting and overlooking the truth.”

Nujaifi said that, during the meeting with Obama in the White House, followed by a closed-door meeting with Biden, the talks focused on fundamental issues related to the current Iraqi crisis, “and the most prominent developments unfolding in Anbar, as well as fears resulting from the ongoing situation and the use of military force as the only solution to solve the problem.” He insisted on “the need to shift to a peaceful solution, to guarantee safety and security in Anbar, and stop terrorist activity.”

Are there any American weapons in Iraq today?

During his meeting with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in Washington, Nujaifi emphasized the need to “equip the Iraqi army with weapons and equipment and develop its combat potentials in its war against terrorism, provided that these weapons will not be directed against the people.”

He agreed with Hagel on “the need to isolate al-Qaeda and continue fighting the terrorist group until victory. It is also important to distinguish between its shameful actions and the violated rights of the people of Anbar.”

Moreover, Nujaifi stressed the need to “analyze the dimensions of the Iraqi problem, namely the crisis in Anbar, given that terrorist groups have taken advantage of the disputes and strained relationships between political forces. Thus, it is necessary that the solution is not only limited to the political framework. Economic, social and cultural aspects ought to be taken into consideration as well.”

During his visit to the United States, Nujaifi first met with Kerry. The two men discussed the Iraqi crisis and the volatile situation in Anbar.

He also agreed with Kerry, in the presence of Brett McGurk, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq, on the “importance of giving the political solution a chance and relying on dialogue to overcome the crisis.” They stressed “the legitimate need to continue the war against terrorism until eliminating it, taking into account the need to distinguish between al-Qaeda and the legitimate demands of the people of Anbar.”

Nujaifi says he was not in Washington as a Sunni leader

Some Iraqi and officials in US circles consider that Nujaifi’s visit to the United States was aimed at unveiling the vision of the Iraqi “Sunni community” with regard to the current crisis. However, Nujaifi denied this “sectarian statement,” stressing that he represents “a member of the parliament elected by the Iraqi people.” He said that what he conveyed to US officials in Washington was “the opinion of all Iraqis.” However, a US expert of Iraqi origin considered that Nujaifi’s speech was “far from the concept of national unity and focused on the Sunni community.”

US political and strategic circles said that Nujaifi’s visit came at a difficult time. “Once again, violence is escalating among Iraqi sects and the country seems once more standing on the brink of civil war. Al-Qaeda and ISIS took hold of main Sunni cities, stretching from Fallujah to Ramadi. The Iraqi Sunni community itself seems to be torn between fear of the government, which is dominated by Shiites in Baghdad, and the memory of al-Qaeda’s brutal violations,” they said.

According to the statement of the Brookings Institution, which hosted Nujaifi, “The United States called on both Sunni and Shiite parties to show restraint. The American support to the central government — through providing weapons or other aids — was seen as a support to the Shiites against Sunnis.”

The institution considered that holding an open discussion with Nujaifi aims to “help Americans understand the troubles in Iraq, through the viewpoint of the Sunni community, in particular.”

“Nujaifi discussed the current crisis in Iraq and the US role in helping the country avoid civil war,” the statement added.

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