Journalist Heather Lende has been writing obituaries in the small town of Haines, Alaska, for 20 years.
“There’s a humanitarian disaster that’s about to happen if the government doesn’t retake control of those areas.”
“I don’t think anybody’s happy about that idea. I think people are willing to take security from whichever direction it will come from,” Slater said. “People are turning out for recruitment drives for the Iraqi Army. Shia militias are forming in the south. I think Baghdad wants to handle this problem internally if it can. I think people are asking for American assets more than American troops.”
The current crisis has revived the debate over whether the Iraq War was worth it. Slater thought the 2003 invasion was a mistake but he says that’s not where attention should be focused today.
“It almost seems like we have to deal with the situation at hand in Iraq and how to prevent Iraq from descending into chaos instead of getting back into old arguments. I think there’s a humanitarian disaster that’s about to happen if the government doesn’t retake control of those areas. The biggest thing we should be thinking about is not America’s geopolitical position. It’s what is happening today and what is happening in those areas that are controlled by ISIS. The Sunnis that have been under ISIS rule know that nothing good is going to happen. It’s going to be a nightmare for the people that are living in those areas right now.”
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HOBSON: But first to the ongoing crisis in Iraq. The Sunni extremists who have taken control of parts of Iraq are edging closer to Baghdad - clashing today with Iraqi government and Shiite forces in Baqubah. That's about 40 miles northeast of the capital. And as the debate continues in Washington about whether and to what extent the U.S. should get involved, we want to hear now from an American living in Iraq. Andrew Slater served three tours of duty as an Army officer during the war. Today, he teaches English at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani. And he joins us via Skype. Andrew, welcome.
ANDREW SLATER: Thanks for having me.
HOBSON: Well, you're in Sulaimani, which is in the northern part - the Kurdish part of the country. What is the situation there where you are today?
SLATER: The situation in the Kurdish region is very stable. The Peshmerga forces have moved out to the Kurdish contested areas in Diyala and Nineveh and Kirkuk province to take control since the Iraqi army has left. And I think the sentiment of Kurds - I think a lot of them are questioning what their investment in the rest of Iraq is worth. And discussions of independence and separation from Iraq have certainly resurfaced in the last couple of days.
HOBSON: Well, and when you say Peshmerga, by the way, you're talking about the Kurdish military there.
HOBSON: And there have been questions about independence. Do you think the Kurds are going to be at all likely to allow Iraqi soldiers back in to patrol anything at this point? Or do they just want to separate?
SLATER: I don't - I don't see the Kurdish region allowing Iraqi Army to retake over Kurdish areas. And I think with the desperation of the situation in Baghdad, I don't think they're going to be asking for that anytime soon. I think that's a question for much further in the future. Right now, the issues Baghdad is facing is whether they can recapture Tikrit and Mosul and those areas. And they'll deal with the newly larger Kurdistan in the future. I think that's a future question for them.
HOBSON: Well, let's listen here to the prime minister of Kurdistan, Nechervan Barzani, who told the BBC that the best solution to the current crisis would be creating another autonomous region for the Sunnis.
NECHERVAN BARZANI: We have to leave it to Sunni area to decide it. But I think this is a best model for them as well to do it. The best way is to have a Sunni region.
HOBSON: Andrew Slater, do you see Iraq potentially breaking up into three regions? And would that work?
SLATER: I don't really know if it'll work. If it did, I guess the question would be if you actually gave a separate autonomous region in the Sunni regions, how would you keep that from becoming co-opted by ISIS? And I think the other issue is there's not a very clean divide between Sunni and Shiite areas in the majority of Iraq. It's not a clean divide in Diyala. It's not a clean divide in Baghdad or in Salahuddin province. I don't think it's as easy as saying we're going to create a separate federal region. Iraq is too intermixed. It would be even more problematic than the disputed territories with the Kurdish region. So I think it's a nice idea but I don't really see how it would be implemented.
HOBSON: Now, you served three tours of duty as an Army officer in Iraq. And you're now teaching English. Do your students want American troops coming back into Iraq?
SLATER: I don't think anybody is happy about that idea. But I think people are willing to take security from whichever direction it will come from. People are turning out for recruitment drives for the Iraqi army. Shiite militias are forming in the south. I think that Baghdad wants to handle this problem internally if it can. I think people are asking for American assets more than American troops.
HOBSON: Do you feel safe?
SLATER: Yes, very safe in the Kurdish region. The Kurdish region - I feel very safe. You really - it's almost like being in a separate country from the rest of Iraq in terms of security conditions here and people just going about their everyday business.
HOBSON: There's been a lot of talk in this country about whether the Iraq war was worth it, especially given what is going on now in Iraq. How do you feel about it?
SLATER: I mean, I thought the invasion was a mistake. But it almost seems like we have to deal with the situation at hand in Iraq. That's what we should be talking about and how to prevent Iraq from descending into chaos instead of getting back into old arguments.
HOBSON: And you think the U.S. has an interest in preventing Iraq from descending into chaos if that is indeed what's going to happen?
SLATER: I think so. But mostly, I think there's a humanitarian disaster that's about to happen if the government doesn't retake control of those areas. I think that's the biggest thing people should be thinking about - is not America's geopolitical position. It's what is happening today and what is going to happen in those areas that are controlled by ISIS. And the Sunnis that have been under ISIS rule know that nothing good is going to happen. It's going to be a nightmare for the people that are living in those areas right now.
HOBSON: Andrew Slater served as an Army officer in the Iraq war. He is now teaching at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, which is in the Kurdish part of the country. Andrew, thanks for joining us again.
SLATER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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