Iraqi ex-mayor: US & Iraq govt mistakes alienated people, paved way for ISIS

A new state emerges on the ruins of Iraq and Syria. An Islamic caliphate is declared by the radical militants who managed to conquer large swathes of lands, with the Iraqi army failing to stop their advance. Extremists take over cities with millions of inhabitants, they snatch oilfields and military supplies from Baghdad. Will their attack ever be stalled? Is Iraq able to do this alone? What will happen if the US intervenes? We ask these questions to the former mayor of the town of Tal Afar, now occupied by jihadists, Najim Abed Al-Jabouri.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Najim Abed Al-Jabouri, ex-mayor of Iraqi town of Tal Afar, which is now in ISIS hands – you’re now based in America, and you’re a Mideast scholar, it’s great to have you on our show today. Now, Tal Afar has been overtaken by ISIS. You were the city’s mayor, and I know you keep in touch with your colleagues there - so what’s going on? How is the city managing under ISIS?

Najim Abed Al-Jabouri: Tal Afar witnessed the same thing Mosul and other cities did… Frankly speaking, the morale of the local security forces was pretty low – they didn’t feel like fighting at all. Their commanders abandoned the soldiers. Locals told me the battalion had left its position in a secure historic fortress on top of a high hill and moved to Tal Afar airport, which is an open unprotected area. Their commanders were involved in corruption and were only interested in raising money. They were not ready for a war. The army has no national spirit, it was built on the basis of religion, which is wrong because religion is divisive. The only thing that mattered to them was being paid. So the army that lost its commanders and morale failed in the battle against several hundred ISIS terrorists and fighters.

SS: General, before we talk about why army is fleeing in masses, I want to ask you a couple of questions about ISIS itself. This ISIS success seems like a complete surprise to the public -how did they gain so much support so suddenly?

NAAJ: Unfortunately, the Iraqi government took the wrong course in building a relationship with its citizens. In fact, it split them into first-rate and second-rate citizens. For instance, decisions by Paul Bremer’s occupational authority like destroying the Baath Party, dismissing the Iraqi army and shutting down Iraqi public institutions were wrong. The way the government implemented all that was very harmful. In western regions the law to annihilate the Baath Party was taken as an order to annihilate Sunnis. People in western parts felt abandoned and forgotten – their country did nothing for them and didn’t protect their rights. So they took to the streets. The protests continued for over a year. The Iraqi government paid no attention to them, it was too overwhelmed with its military potential, too busy equipping and training the army. But it overlooked the fact that these masses could become infuriated, in which case no military force would stop them. The authorities dealt with those demonstrations strongly. Over 60 people were killed in al Havija, as well as in Fallujah and other cities… Soldiers storming the squares in al Ramadi became the final straw. Sunnis turned into a movement-generating mechanism ready to fight against the government. I believe it was the authorities who pushed Sunnis to the edge so they started looking to cooperate with whatever group there was – be it ISIS troops or others.

SS: Now your PM is saying Saudi Arabia is funding ISIS. Do you think it’s true? What’s in it for Riyadh? Does Saudi Arabia need a Taliban-style extremist state on its northern border?

NAAJ: I do not think the Saudi government finances ISIS or any other terrorist organizations. But certain individuals or organizations based in Saudi Arabia or in other Gulf countries may be involved in this. Saudi Arabia, just like other countries in the region, has suffered from terrorism, which prompted its government to issue regulations that criminalize any connections to such organizations. It is true that Saudi Arabia and Iran are in a religious confrontation, or rather, a fight for leadership. But I believe that there is no link between these extremists and the Saudi government. As I have already said, they might be funded by individuals who have nothing to do with the government.

SS: Earlier on you’ve mentioned that there are divisions that political parties create within the Iraqi army. Are those divisions to blame for this total breakdown of the military?

NAAJ: I think that there is more to the crisis in Iraq than just armed conflict. There are also the political differences, the confrontation between various political parties and groups, the squabble over privileges and high offices in the government. All of this has made security vulnerable in our country. Add to that the large-scale corruption among ruling parties, which has to a great degree cultivated favorable conditions for terrorism to develop. So, political confrontation and corruption are both key factors that affect the military. Remember also the criminal cases about deals to buy and sell faulty weapons and equipment, which involved Iraqi politicians and the military as well? There’s been more than one story like that. The media has covered them extensively.

SS:Now, like we’ve seen, the army is fleeing in masses, putting down arms – but we see the Kurds, they are actually the ones that are capable of repelling ISIS both in Syria and Iraq – why is that the Iraqi army isn’t cabaple of doing that?

NAAJ: I have already told you that the Iraq military lost its patriotic feelings. This is the key reason. An army without ideology can never be a strong one. And our army looks as if it were made up of mercenaries. They do not fight for an idea or for a goal or for their homeland. When Iraq was at war with Iran, a conscript would get meager pay. After his training was over, he would go to the frontline, aware that with 90% probability he’d be killed. Now the situation has taken a U-turn. As far as I know, servicemen receive calls from their parents, who tell them: Run! Do not fight for these dirty politicians! But the Kurdish fighters are an entirely different story. They have a dream. They know they are fighting for their homeland. They want to build a state of their own. Their aspirations are highly ambitious. They have faith and patriotic feelings. They are very different from the regular army in Iraq.

SS: So far, the ISIS is operating in the predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq. Will their success be stalled once they move into Shia-majority territory?

NAAJ: It’s not only ISIS that is responsible for what’s happening in the Sunni regions. It’s tribes, retired officers, and Baathists. Baathists must be more prominent in southern regions. There’re also people who sympathize with former officers who feel offended because they were dismissed and not given what they were entitled to. Some time ago the government conducted a number of operations in Nasiriyah and Diwaniyah, something that the government called a pre-emptive strike designed to curb any possible insurgency. We heard reports from Karbala about skirmishes between the army and the guards of Shia cleric Mahmoud al-Sarkhi which left several people wounded. The situation in the south is also tense. They might be the so called dormant cells in the Sunni areas which could be exploited by the rebels and armed groups, be it ISIS or others. They could exploit them whenever they want to.

SS: Does ISIS have any chance of taking over Iraq?

NAAJ: I don’t think so. ISIS is not that strong, at least in our interpretation. ISIS acts like a shock force, they can capture territory and then hand it over to other groups. Take Mosul, for example. ISIS is no longer there. It took the city and handed it over to the local tribes, to its supporters and some former officers who back them. According to the data that I have, ISIS accounts for no more than 5 percent of the total force active in the Sunni regions. There are other groups that cooperate with them. I don’t think ISIS has the capacity to take control of the whole of Iraq. I don’t think so.

SS: I want to talk a little bit about the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Now he was a U.S. prisoner at one point - and was set free for good behaviour and ‘not being a threat’ anymore. What do you think? Is that a blunder of U.S. intelligence?

NAAJ: Absolutely… When we worked with the Americans while they were still here, we told them these prisons are hotbeds of terrorism. We know that prisoners were free to meet and talk. Among them were people who had nothing to do with terrorism but once they were put in any of those jails and got to know terrorists or people with a certain ideology, they were brainwashed and left the prison with a completely different mindset. And then they joined al-Qaeda and similar networks. Indeed, they were many innocent people locked up in jails at that time. Because they were unjustly convicted, because they were downtrodden, they easily accepted the ideas spread by extremists and were brainwashed. One of them was Camp Bucca in Basra. There were so many moderate people who ended up being extremists after leaving this and other jails.

SS: Now, I read somewhere that you’ve said the U.S. has wrecked your country, but you also believe it’s the U.S. that can save it. Honestly, we all remember what happened the last time U.S. intervened in Iraq, so – is that really wise?

NAAJ: As I have already mentioned, the United States has effectively admitted that the invasion of Iraq was a major mistake. The split imposed on the Iraqi public has been primarily influenced by U.S. Ambassador Paul Bremer. Iraq never used to be like this before 2003. Shiites didn’t get killed for being Shiites, and similarly Sunnis and Kurds didn’t get killed for being what they are – not anywhere in Iraq. People didn’t get killed for what their passport says.

I believe the Americans have admitted they had made some fatal mistakes by banning the Ba’ath party, disbanding the army, dismissing government institutions and forming the Iraqi Governing Council. I think that the United States, as the world’s greatest power, bears certain moral commitments vis-à-vis Iraq, along with responsibility for the ongoing bloodshed. They should rebuild what they have previously destroyed in Iraq, in collaboration with the international community. And let us hope Iraq won’t split into three smaller, weaker states – in such an event, we would witness an eruption of ferocious sectarian and ethnic violence, with Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and all other Iraqi communities being at each other’s throats. That is why I believe the U.S. should not distance itself from what’s going on in Iraq. Instead, it should collaborate with the UN Security Council, with the regional powers, and with the rest of the world to assist in rebuilding Iraq. And I don’t just mean rebuilding infrastructure.

SS: But do you feel – general, I’m sorry, but do you feel like the Americans know what they are doing. Even 10 years on? Because, I know that Obama’s administration has calling for new leadership in Iraq, that’s number one request, but it also previously called for a fresh leadership in Egypt, Libya, Syria. It’s not really working out in those countries either. Do you feel like White House knows what it’s doing? Do you feel it knows the peculiarities of Iraqi people and Iraq in general?

NAAJ: In my opinion, America’s military might and its foreign policy exist separately from one another. The U.S. is a formidable military power, but sadly, it is weak foreign policy-wise. That is why I’m not inclined to suspect the Obama administration of pursuing some secret plan directed against Iraq. I had warned the public about Iraq’s security forces back in 2009, predicting exactly what we are seeing today. Many people didn’t agree with me then, saying the new Iraqi military are an army of the people and for the people, and therefore they are strong and will withstand anything. But at the end of the day, what has happened was exactly what I had warned against. That is why I think U.S. foreign policy is weak, as it fails to focus on the right issues.

SS: So do you think it could make things worse in Iraq?

NAAJ: We have practically hit rock bottom. The situation is critical. A UN report alleges more than 5,000 people were killed or wounded in Iraq this month alone. The people of Baghdad fear ISIS attacks, the militias and insurgent groups. Sunnis are afraid, and so are Shiites. In Salah ad Din Province, ISIS fighters are engaging government troops and targeting locals, and people are dying. There are over a million refugees out of Mosul, Salah ad Din, Baaquba and Baghdad. It just cannot get much worse than that. There is fighting in Kerbala as we speak. The situation in Iraq is very difficult. And we are looking at a very grim future unless politicians manage to come up with a government that observes and pursues the interests of each and every Iraqi.

SS: Now, when you were a mayor, you tried to build a system in Tal Afar that would ignore ethno-sectarian lines and emphasize civil duty. Why did you fail, ultimately?

NAAJ: I didn’t fail, thank God I succeeded, and my success in Tal Afar was that I helped people remember that they are IRAQI. I helped people forget about their religious or ethnic differences and concentrate only on being Iraqi nationals. Tal Afar began like Fallujah, but it ended up very differently. Unfortunately, once Tal Afar recovered and became stable and prosperous the Iraqi government made sure to remind people in Tal Afar that I used to be a Ba'ath member and a general during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Unfortunately, people always have their religious differences, and when people were reminded of having them, they stopped living at peace with each other. This never happened while the Americans were in, they would never have allowed something like this. I lost my protection when the US forces started to withdraw, and I received several orders to leave my post. Later, I learned that there were circles in the Iraqi government which would do anything they could to destroy me if I refused to resign. This is the reason I resigned. And I thank God that the people of Tal Afar stood by each other and protected each other despite everything that’s happening there – that the local Shia helped the local Sunnis escape and didn’t let ISIS kill any of them. Thank God people still feel united there. We worked hard to create a feeling of national unity, and the residents of Tal Afar remember that first and foremost they are citizens of Iraq.

SS: But you had to collaborate with Americans when you were mayor. Right now you’re even based in the U.S., but while you were mayor, did you feel like you were collaborating with occupiers or liberators? What does an average Iraqi feel at that moment?

NAAJ: No.. no.. I am completely open about this, when I worked with them I viewed them as occupiers, not liberators. I always said that, and I did my best to help my people recover from the massacre and devastation. And I cannot deny that I met some truly good and humane people in the US Army. All they needed was advice, and they asked for it. I managed to prevent my town suffering the fate of Fallujah, to prevent the same things from happening there. I told them in 2009 not to use any heavy weapons or air force in their missions, or I said I would resign.And they listened to me and never used those kinds of weapons. Everyone in Mosul knows what I did for Tal Afar, only the Iraqi government unfortunately doesn’t want to acknowledge it …. only them… They know very well what I did! Even the Prime Minister said it! He commended my work in Tal Afar. But unfortunately, there are many inside the government who want to build a revenge state in Iraq with a policy of revenge and violence… But one cannot build a nation state with such a policy. This explains the failure we are witnessing today.

SS: Because there’s so much sectarian divide, like you’ve said – do you feel like Iraq could be one country ever again, or is it going to end up divided into Kurd, Sunni and Shia states?

NAAJ: We, the Iraqi people, do not have any separatist sentiments - they have been forced onto us by the government and politicians, because they are losers who cannot keep their warm seats without backup from the sectarians. So the problem lies with the politicians, not with the people. If the politicians remain shortsighted and focus only on their vested interests, then yes, the country will fall apart. But if some of them listen to the voice of their conscience and feel compelled to help the people heal their wounds and create a government capable of delivering what the majority of the Iraqi people want without any preferential treatment or persecutions… because everyone is equal in the face of the law, the Kurds, the Sunnis, the Shia and Turkmen alike as nationals of one state… in that case yes, Iraq can rise up to be a nation state of unity and integrity again.

SS: There’s also been examples of local Sunnis rising up against Islamists and driving them away - I’m talking about the Sons of Iraq movement, I’m sure that you know it. Why isn’t ‘the awakening’ happening now? Are Sunnis just joining ISIS?

NAAJ: Unfortunately as I’ve said, the present government is trying to stay afloat. As soon as the Americans left Iraq the first thing they did was start a fight against the Awakening Movement. They know, as everyone else does, that neither the American nor Iraqi military would’ve been able to win against al-Qaeda, if not for the Awakening. But the first thing the government did was turn against the Awakening. Many of its leaders were thrown in jail and deprived of their salaries. Many of those tribes that had participated in the Awakening now turned against the Iraqi government. I am not saying that they are necessarily fighting on the ISIS’s side.

SS: Baghdad is already cut off from northern oil fields. If southern Shiite-held areas rich in oil are affected as well, will Iraq have the money to keep on fighting?

NAAJ: As I’ve said, I don’t think that ISIS will keep these areas for a long time. I believe the Iraqi government will regain its influence over the Iraqi territories. The leaders of the Sunni tribes have said many times that theyare ready to push ISIS away. Their only condition would be the establishment of a national government that treats all its citizens equally. Then they will be willing to assist the military, or even fight ISIS and kick the extremists out of their areas. I don’t think the extremists would stay.

SS: But how will the government work without the oil money?

NAAJ: The Iraqi government still has the money. We shouldn’t forget that 95 percent of oil production is located in Basra, which is controlled by the government. In other regions the oil production is insignificant. You’ll know that oil production was suspended in Kirkuk due to an explosion on the export oil pipeline. There’s no oil production in other territories where the armed hostilities are taking place. 95 percent of Iraqi oil production is concentrated in Basra, Maysan, Nasiriyah, and Wasit. All these areas are under government control.

SS: General thank you so much for this wonderful interview, thanks for explaining us what’s going on in Iraq. We were talking to Najim Abed Al-Jabouri, the former mayor of Iraqi town of Tal Afar, he’s now based in America and is a MidEast scholar there. It’s been great talking to you, we’ve been talking about what’s going on inside Iraq, will ISIS ever take over the Iraq, and what’s in store for Iraq. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, we’ll see you next time.