In recent months, the terrorist group known within the U.S. government as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has seized significant territory inside Iraq, exploiting sectarian divisions and political mistrust that sapped the strength of Iraqi forces. ISIL seeks to rip Iraq apart in the group’s quest to establish a caliphate. But Iraq’s communities have started to unite in pushing back.
Since more than 13 million Iraqis cast their ballots in April despite threats from ISIL to kill anyone who voted, Iraqis have convened a new parliament, selected a speaker and president, and designated a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to form a new government.
These steps are meaningful because they show that Iraqis have begun to understand that they must rise above their differences. And that, when they do, they can succeed — not only in uniting the country but in defeating ISIL.
There is no negotiating with ISIL. We have seen its appalling killings of U.S. journalist James Foley and countless other innocent people, its cruelty and its fanaticism.
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But even if there were no ISIL, Iraq’s survival would still depend on the ability of Iraqis to set aside their differences and unite in a common effort. Iraq’s security would still depend on addressing the alienation that fuels extremist movements and convincing Iraqis that their needs can be met through the political process rather than through violence.
In the past few weeks, President Barack Obama has spoken with Abadi and I have spoken to each of Iraq’s incoming and outgoing leaders. We have come away encouraged that they recognize that years of political deadlock and discord must end.
For Iraq, success will require genuine compromise from all sides and a new government in Baghdad capable of responding to the needs of all of Iraq’s communities. We cannot want that more than Iraqis do. Unless Iraq can do this, no amount of outside intervention will matter — nor will it continue indefinitely.
That’s why government formation is so critical. As prime minister-designate, Abadi is working to put forward a new lineup of Cabinet ministers and a road map that will set the agenda for Iraq’s new government. We are encouraging Iraqi leaders to complete this process as soon as possible.
We are also encouraging Iraq’s neighbors to refrain from fueling sectarian divisions, which only plays into ISIL’s hands, and instead to treat this shared challenge as an opportunity to begin a new chapter in their relations with Iraq and with each other.
Iraq’s security efforts, like its politics, must harness the energy and cooperation of all communities.
Another approach that is emerging is a “functioning federalism” under the Iraqi constitution, which would ensure equitable revenue-sharing for all provinces and establish locally rooted security structures, such as a national guard, to protect the population in cities and towns and deny space for ISIL while protecting Iraq’s territorial integrity.
It will ultimately be up to the Iraqis to define their future, and we are encouraged that a serious debate about that has begun.
ISIL is far from invincible. Its ideology is rejected by most Iraqis. It establishes order not through consent but through fear. It has destroyed ancient religious sites, enslaved women and girls, and brutally executed many of the very Sunnis it claims to speak for.
As Iraqis begin to unite in their resolve against ISIL, we must be prepared to do the same. We will continue to consult closely with Congress about our strategy in Iraq and the region when it comes to ISIL and the security of our people. This will be a long-term challenge. It is one that our partners around the world, with our support, have no choice but to take on and win — starting in Iraq.