Iraqi Ambassador to the US: We Must Cleanse Iraq of ISIS

Gayle Trotter
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Posted: Jan 19, 2015 12:01 AM
Iraqi Ambassador to the US: We Must Cleanse Iraq of ISIS

[Editor's Note: Gayle Trotter was able to sit down for an interview with Iraq's Ambassador to the United States, for his perspective on the unrest in the Middle East, terrorism, and America's role in fighting ISIS.]

Gayle Trotter

Tell me a little bit about your background and how you find yourself in Washington, D.C., as the representative of your country Iraq?

Lukman Faily
My major is in mathematics and computer science so my background was always technical. I worked in various companies in the United Kingdom and worked in IT-related industries, primarily consultancy. I moved on into project management, program management and then into governance and infrastructure projects.

The last two companies I worked for before joining the Iraqi Foreign Service were HP (formerly EDS), and other multi-national companies in the banking sector. I've also been involved since college in Iraqi politics, within the Iraq Diaspora in Manchester in the United Kingdom.

I've long had that connection with student activism, community activism, and political activism. I've always had an interest in Iraq and a focus on the politics of Iraq. The United Kingdom has one of the largest groups of Iraqi Diaspora. That helps because you already have a large community to work with.

In 2009, an opportunity came up for me to move into the Foreign Service as an ambassador, and I was one among about 60 new ambassadors. I was the ambassador to Japan for three years and I've been in D.C. for just over a year and a half.

GT
What role do you see the Americans, who are deployed to Iraq by President Obama in the wake of the ISIS advance, playing with respect to security? The U.S. is being told that these American forces, which number over 2,000 right now, are not engaged in a combat mission. Is that really true or are word games being played in order to disguise what the Americans are really doing there?

LF

No, there is no disguise. There is clarity of narrative or, I would say, even an alignment, a clear alignment, between the Iraqis and the Americans and the coalition in relation to who should be on the battle front, who should be doing the actual fighting and who needs to provide the capabilities to provide the right environment for it. In that sense, I don't see any ambiguity there. The Americans were clear they wanted to leave Iraq since President Obama's statement in 2008, and he stuck to his commitment to the American people.

The Iraqis, as well, were seeking independence. No status of forces agreement was agreed on. So the troops had to leave by the end of 2011. That took place. Now the security situation has deteriorated. It became clearer in their requirements that they need the U.S. capability to support them in advising, training, equipping, and so on. The United States is our largest partner in the provision of our military capability, whether it's in relation to F-16 jets, Apaches or tanks, and Humvees, or our integrated air defense systems.

The largest FMS program we have is with the United States, worth over $10 billion. We already chose the United States as our partner. I would say, we don't expect Americans to be in combat. I don't think there is a need for that. The Iraqis want to have that fight themselves. It might be a bloody fight, but we are determined to cleanse the country from ISIS.

GT

The collapse of the Iraqi Armed Forces in the face of the ISIS assault last year, despite enjoying superior numbers over ISIS, was something that the Secretary of State said was beyond the capabilities of the U.S. Government to foresee. Do you agree or had the poor fighting capabilities of the Iraqi Armed Forces been conveyed to the U.S. before ISIS seized Mosul, and how long do you think it will be before the Iraqi Armed Forces will be capable of tackling ISIS without any American backup?

LF

We agree with the theme of eradication; we cannot coexist with them. Building an army takes maybe a generation or so. We don't want to wait a generation for that. In that sense, we don't see the need for an alignment where we think it has to be an only-Iraqi solution to this. This is a global problem. Terrorism is a global phenomenon. ISIS is a transnational group. The majority of their fighters and their capabilities came from Syria. They're already from a different country. We don't think it's only an Iraq fight. We also, at the same time, want to be involved ourselves in their eradication and have that fight and cleanse our country from it.

I don't see any ambiguity. I see a clarity of objective in both. Both countries have similar narratives in what ISIS means, what are the steps, coexistence, addressing some of the core issues. We may have to have discussions, further discussions, regional discussions, so that we eradicate the causes of ISIS, not just the symptoms of ISIS. In that sense, I don't see a lot of homework to be done. I think that people know what they have to do. As to building the army, that requires a generation of work.

The abrupt departure of the Americans in 2011 didn't help us. We are new to democratic governance and democracy has only been in Iraq since 2005. That's when the constitution was ratified. Having only a decade of democracy versus the need to have a long culture of good governance and other related aspects is a long project for us and we are at the very first phase of it. In fact, I would even say that understanding what it takes to build the country in itself is a project that we're still just grasping at this moment.

We, and I mean the whole Coalition, Iraq and others, must see what is needed. Where the United States, after the troop withdrawal, said to me their understanding of the Iraqi needs was this because they didn't have troops there. We, ourselves, didn't foresee that impact of Syria would be so devastating on us in relation to the ISIS capabilities and their ruthlessness. That was another challenge. Controlling the border was a challenge for us. We didn't have a single fighter jet to help control that problem.

The U.S. and the International Coalition came late to understand the scope of the danger of ISIS. That's certainly a problem which we have to have a serious dialogue about in the region to try to eradicate ISIS.

GT

Do you think that was too much to expect? Given the abrupt departure of the U.S. andconsidering that after World War II, we're still in Germany, we're still in Japan. We still have forces in Korea as well. Do you think that the idea that America withdrew the troops because, as you said, President Obama made that campaign promise and he saw it as a strategic end onto itself, do you think it was too much to expect of Iraq?

LF

But the Iraqis, themselves, didn't want the troops to stay there unless there was a clear SOFA agreement that was agreed by parliament That was already an Iraqi project as well as a U.S. project. That's more for history and a lesson learned rather than for us, at this moment, to go and find the root causes of that, for sure. I think we have more urgent issues to address.

As to what we should have done, I think we'll leave that for another day. What we can do now is focus on the problem now. ISIS is a tumor in the regional body. It has to be resolved. We have to look into what are the factors that entice or help that tumor organ. We need to eradicate that. That may be a more in-depth dialogue between the players in the region with the U.S. support.

A better understanding of how do we resolve the Syria problems? The Iranian versus the Gulf tension, how do we reduce that tension? These are areas that we hope this current crisis has created an opportunity for us to address because no one can coexist with ISIS. No single community in the region can coexist with ISIS. I think there is work to do for us there, and I mean, we, all parties, including the United States.

GT

How would you assess the performance thus far of Prime Minister al-Abadi? Particularly in the area of healing Sunni/Shia divisions and how would you grade the new team?

LF

To heal, you first need to identify the illness. You have to get the right treatment and healing will take time. Here we're talking about a physical healing in relation to ISIS, getting rid of ISIS and then emotional healing to get into the right culture of cooperation and development of the country.

With having a decade of terrorism, it has fractured the social fabric of the society. ISIS with their ruthlessness, have certainly endangered minorities and others and that's created another level of problems. It enhanced their culture of violence, which we need to get away from as far as possible. That's one aspect.

The other aspect of it is that the culture of Saddam's wars meant that the violence was a predominant tool of dialogue in that society. He got us into wars; he got us into international sanctions which meant that there was an eradication of the middle class across a whole generation. Now we're redeveloping our country where we don't have a strong middle class and development will take longer. So we have to focus on building the right middle class, with the right intelligence and the right infrastructure, NGOs or civil society to complement the government. Decentralization, federalism, these are key themes which Iraqis are looking for. Democracy, what does it mean?

I tweeted the other day about a reflection of 2015 in which I answered,"What do you think we should do?" One thing I tweeted is that people have to see democracy as a service provision. I don't want to see democracy as a theme without an actual benefit from democracy. That's an area that has to be entrenched more in our culture, for our politicians and others as well. There is a lot of work to do there. Understanding the scale of what we need to do to develop the country is in itself a national project, and that requires a lot of work.

The prime minister is trying to get examples of that. Restructuring the military. Restructuring the interior ministry. Looking at the whole element of the budgets and they're saying, "What is necessary versus what is a preference to have?"We're looking at that in relation to going to the various places themselves, meeting the tribal leaders, appointing the ministers within the constitution timelines in relation to defense and interior. These were vacant for some time. These are all signs that it's committed to having a united national discourse. It will take time.People should never underestimate the scale of the challenge there.

GT

What do you think Americans understand least about today's Iraq?

LF

The richness and the diversity of the society is where a lot of work has to be done, to reach out to the societies. There has to be more dialogue with the people and people-to-people relations. We try to keep away in looking at Iraq without a Sunni/Shia/Kurds narrative. The society is much richer—it's richer and much more diverse than this narrative of the Sunni/Shia. In a way once you look at that, you can understand the complexity and once you understand the complexity, you can know how to deal with it. It won't become a binary perspective view of Iraq. That's the key issue. That does require dialogue. It does require patience. It does require action. We, as Iraqis, have to help the United States gain a better understanding of that. That's our task as much as the United States, because we're talking about partnership here.

GT

What do you think can be done, immediately, to protect the ethnic religious minorities in Iraq? Not just the Christians, but the Yezidis and the other groups that are threatened?

LF

I'm not aware of anybody having what you might call a preferential treatment over one minority versus the other. I am not aware of that, whether it was the U.S. or Iraqis. We are looking at them all as one community that are all part of the Iraqi nationality. Certainly there are immediate challenges, such as the IDPs. We winter coming, the tents are not equipped.They don't have heaters or the right capability, infrastructure for them, then that's certainly an issue.

GT

At least 23 Iraqis have been killed over the last 24 hours and, as you know, 2014 was one of the worst years ever for Iraqi civilians, which resulted in almost 15,000 to 17,000 civilian deaths depending on which numbers you trust. What's the official Iraq response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, and how does it make you feel to hear about these 12 people being slaughtered in France when this level of violence from ISIS occurs daily?

LF

I don't think it's the right approach to compare. However, do we have a theme of human rights violations? Yes, in both fronts. Do we think that a life is a life across? Yes. We all have the same blood and you have to look at the preservation of human dignity as a theme across.

But the obligation is on us, as Iraqis, to protect that. There are good examples for us to say we need to keep away from the culture of violence by a promotion of human rights, by a promotion of dialogue, by a promotion of zero tolerance to corruption.

These examples of an uproar in a society for the death of 12, is somewhat for us is like a good indicator of what societies need to do when there is a human rights breach. Human rights breaches go to the core foundations of society. Our government condemned the attack. We certainly have said that these are phenomena we have been warning about. That if it is global jihadism, then this is a danger to all and we need to work with each other. The French have realized that and they've realized that they have jihadists in Syria and Iraq whom they cannot tolerate and they are working with us and we have good cooperation.

GT

Egypt's president, al-Sisi, made a headline generating speech recently in which he said, "I say and repeat, again, that we are in need of a religious revolution." What impact does this type of speech have on Muslims in Iraq and what is your reaction to his speech?

LF

I was the ambassador in Tokyo and I was there during the Fukushima incidents. I saw how the Japanese nation reacted positively in addressing a triple disaster—an earthquake, a nuclear disaster, and a tsunami. What I came away with in that three years' in Tokyo was that to develop a society, we need to have harmony. To get the harmony, we need to align our religious culture and government narratives and the relation to one another is important. So human rights, animal rights, any type of rights, freedom of rights, we need to align our religious perspective versus a culture we want to promote and the government legislation to support that.

I think what the President of Egypt was talking about was trying to align with the two—the religious establishment and the government, in the context of a multicultural society. Iraq is much more diverse and is culturally richer. For us to have a diverse society, we need to develop. To develop we need to have the harmony, which means we need to have a serious dialogue to aligning these narratives. What do we need to do in relation to alignment in having a common vision when we talk about with women's rights, religiously, culturally, and legislatively?

GT

With the oil prices dropping, what challenge does this present to Iraq?

LF

It has made it clear for us that our reliance on oil is not sustainable. It has also made it clear for us that key basic assumptions need to be challenged in relation to developing our economy and budgetary planning. Oil is a global commodity, but, also, because of supply and demand, because of the geopolitics, there is what you might call volatility of prices for it. We need to move away from that.

The country of Iraq is too rich, geographically, with the resources in human capabilities in which we can develop and move away from just the problem of over-dependency on oil. This year will be a harsh year on Iraq in relation to budgetary planning because of the prices of oil.

It has given us a wakeup call, which we needed, at a great cost.

GT

How would you describe Iraq's relationship with Russia?

LF

Russia has always been, for us, a country we have sought to have a good relationship with. It has helped us with military capability. It has helped us in oil development and other areas as well. It is a country that understands the immediate needs we have and has tried to help us there. It's an important geopolitical country and has always helped us.

GT

What do you see the future holds if Iran changes course and opens up?

LF

The tension between Iran and some of the Gulf countries, for example, or between Iran and United States has not helped the region in combating terrorism and other challenges to the region. Any factor that will reduce the tension would be what comes by us.

Iran is a significant regional player. It has its weights in geography and in its capabilities and in its history. The United States and regional players would always want to have a role in Iran. These are the facts which we have to work with. There has to be more of alignment in understanding, at least in certain narratives. Even if they do not agree and have the strategic relationship, that doesn't mean that they cannot agree on the fight against terrorism, for example, or the need for having a united Iraq. To be fair to all the countries in relation to these specific factors I just mentioned, there is maturity. This is what we need to promote: more dialogue with Iran and the regional players so that they reduce tensions.

We see an opportunity there and if the United States will push more, whether it be five plus one or three plus three, whatever they want to call it, and we think that it's a good opportunity. We hope it's not a lost opportunity, and we also see that the Iranians are eager for this relationship. So we see the two-way approach to it. We hope that there is a better or a faster resolution in 2015.

GT

My understanding is that when Saddam was in power, he was able to install a lot of fiber optics in Iraq and that was done for military purposes. But now there are lots of opportunities from that kind of technological infrastructure. How do you think that this gives Iraq an advantage in the new economy? Also because cell phones now have more computing power in them than what we had to put somebody on the moon, what kind of opportunities do you think cell-phone-type penetration allows the young generation of Iraqis to engage in the global marketplace?

LF

Only last month 3G internet data was introduced to Iraq. It's late, but I think it was necessary and important. The society is very young. We are the youngest in the region and the region is one of the youngest in the world.

There is a need for developing highways and communication infrastructure. That's another aspect. We need to promote entrepreneurship so that people see an opportunity in the need and try to fulfill that need. We need to promote it in a number of ways. First, promote entrepreneurship in our banking system so that it promotes providing loans for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Second, we also need to promote a culture where failure is not considered as shameful, but as an ingredient to learning and development.

The government has to give more leeway for small and medium-sized enterprises to develop than its current share which is primarily all major infrastructure into our government projects. There are certainly challenges in the layers I've just talked about, whether it's the infrastructure, the culture, the aspiration of the people, and so on. But can it be done? Yes. Other countries have done it.

GT

What is your dream for the Iraqi people in one year, two years, and three years; and what do you think stands in the way of that dream?

LF

I think it's making sure that we have control. The terrorism narrative is important. Even if we don't eradicate it, we control it and we work toward eradication.

We have better predictability of the political scenery in Iraq and in the region so we can see that there is a better dialogue between the Saudis and Iranians. We can see that there is a better dialogue between the Americans and the Iranians, for example, in addition to seeing some political light at the end of the Syrian tunnel.

GT

I noticed that you ran the Boston marathon.

LF

I did the New York marathon, as well. I hope I will do two marathons this year.

GT

My final question for you is what are you passionate about and might it be running?

LF

No, it's not running. Running is a necessity, not a desire. I'm passionate about what makes a person tick. I enjoy looking at anthropology and political developments. I come from a very rich culture, which means that I have a lot of material to catch up on—reading and so on, just to enrich myself.

I'm also passionate about making sure that the United States project in Iraq has positive connotations so the Americans don't see Iraq as a place of instability but a place of a society evolving into democracy, evolving into good governance. And they see it as part of the transition of that society, rather than seeing Iraq only as post-2003. The nation of Iraq in comparison to the history of Iraq is different and that's another issue and one of the issues I keep saying. The United States had a focus on the nation-building and there should have been more on the state-building, because we think, in Iraq, the development of the new nation based on democracy is where the challenge is and we need to get the right state to promote that nation.

GT

Thank you for your time.

LF

Thank you.