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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Former Iraqi Diplomat Weighs In On Crisis In Iraq

Feisal Istrabadi, pictured here in 2009, served as deputy Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations from 2004 to 2007. (Washington University Law)

Feisal Istrabadi, pictured here in 2009, served as deputy Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations from 2004 to 2007. (Washington University Law)

As the United States mulls possible intervention in Iraq, U.S. warships, helicopters, Marines and Army troops have moved into the region, awaiting a decision.

Meanwhile, Sunni extremists continue to post graphic images online of violence against Shiites in areas conquered by the group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

Feisal Istrabadi was deputy Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations from 2004 to 2007 and was a principal drafter of Iraq’s interim constitution. He’s now at Indiana University Law School, where he founded the Center for the Study of the Middle East.

Istrabadi discusses the situation in Iraq and how the U.S. should respond, with Here & Now’s Robin Young.


  • Feisal Istrabadi, former deputy Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations. He’s now a professor at Indiana University Law School.



From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson, it's HERE AND NOW. Coming up, President Obama wants to protect a huge swath of the Pacific Ocean from fishing and energy exploration.

YOUNG: But first the question - should the U.S. intervene in Iraq?

TITO TITUS: I think the very light response that's been discussed by the administration I would support and not anything more - nothing, zero, nada, nil.

LANCE JONES: I mean, we went over there - invaded it - and now obviously they can't, in my opinion, they can't defend themselves. So I think we definitely have a responsibility to go over there.

BECKY MORELL: I think we created a mess in Iraq. I wonder sometimes if we have some responsibility to continue to try to help resolve some of the mess that we've made. But I also think that we were wrong to go in there in the first place and we may be continuing to contribute to do more wrong by going back in there.

YOUNG: The thoughts of Tito Titus (ph) of Seattle, Lance Jones of Phoenix and the last there Becky Morell (ph) of Seattle. As the largely Sunni militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS draws nearer to President Nouri-al-Maliki's Shia led government in Baghdad today. Feisal Istrabadi was deputy Iraqi ambassador to the UN from 2004-2007. His grandfather helped draft Iraq's first constitution. His family left Iraq after the 1968 coup that installed the Baathist regime. He's now at the Indiana University law school. We want to get his view - the view of one Iraqi of this crisis in Iraq. Ambassador Istrabadi, welcome. In 2009, you told NPR's Scott Simon that Iraq would not break up into, as you said, Sunnistan and Shiastan. But then the next year, 2010, there was that fraught parliamentary election. Then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition did not get the number of seats he thought they should. In fact, a nonsectarian nationalist movement led by Ayad Allawi, actually got more votes all across the country. You've told us this was a pivotal moment. Why do you think that?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: As soon as Maliki realized that he didn't actually win the elections, then he attacked hard right back to his sectarian politics. Iran and the United States allied themselves, pushing for Maliki to become prime minister and we have had the sectarian dispensation sort of imposed on Iraq once again.

YOUNG: And what do you think the result of the sectarianism is going to be? Do think Iraq is going to split apart?

ISTRABADI: Well, it may well at this moment. The Iraqi political class and indeed the citizens of Iraq have to decide collectively whether we're going to live in one country or not. That is an issue that is very much in doubt right now. But the decision has to be made positively if we are to remain one country. If we keep putting off that decision, we are in fact flying apart.

YOUNG: What else do you see going on behind the scenes here? For instance, you've said that one of the things that might be happening here is that Maliki, who attacked, as you said, hard right after an election, might also be casting an eye at Syria and seeing a largely Shia government there fending off insurgents and feeling he has to do the same thing.

ISTRABADI: Yes. I think Syria and Iraq have been feeding one another in a negative synergy if you will. What Maliki failed to take into account is that he actually doesn't actually have Bashar Assad's problem in Syria. Bashar Assad in Syria has the same problem that Saddam Hussein had in Iraq, which is to say a minority trying to rule a much larger majority. In Iraq, the Shia are the majority. In a democratic Iraq, the Shia will always have their voice. However, to have a state - a unified state - Maliki had to share power with a Sunni. And this he adamantly refused to do.

YOUNG: Well, and what are the results of that? For instance, you said that maybe Sunnis who are not terrorists or militants have looked the other way as militants come through because why should they support a government that they feel doesn't support them?

ISTRABADI: Well, that's right. If you are disenfranchised and you see some activity going on in a house, you know, four houses down from you, you have a decision to make. You can either decide that you're going to call the police and tell them what you see or look the other way. If you're disenfranchised, you're much more likely to look the other way. And I'm afraid that's what's happened. What has actually occurred in Iraq now is not the simple story that ISIS - this al-Qaida successor in Iraq has, you know, caused all of this rebellion. Yes, it has gone into the insurgency in Iraq. But because of this sense of disenfranchisement, a very disparate group of Sunnis has joined the insurgency in a kind of - an alliance of convenience. And the danger is that if we don't act quickly to differentiate between those Sunni leaders with whom we can deal and those whom we simply must defeat, then we will have acted too late.

YOUNG: But is there any way to do that without boots on the ground? How do you know which is which? The criticism is that that's one of the reasons the U.S., for instance, can't do airstrikes. You don't know who is on the ground.

ISTRABADI: That's right. The utility, in my view, of airstrikes is extremely limited. You can bomb - if you can see a column of ISIS fighters moving down a highway - fine, bomb them. The problem is you can't bomb inside the cities. Mosul's a city of nearly 2 million - you can't start willy-nilly bombing in it. But that's not the issue. The issue isn't a military one in the first instance. The issue is political. You have to have a wise leadership in Baghdad, which is absent at the moment, unfortunately, which understands that if it does not act now quickly to make political compromises, no military solution can save the state of Iraq.

YOUNG: How painful is that for you personally? You were one of the Iraqis who, as we said, had left the country and pushed for the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein - some analysts saying Saddam Hussein, although he ruled with an iron fist, that iron fist kept these different factions together. Now we have this. You're watching this from Indiana. How painful is this for you?

ISTRABADI: Well, let me first address the first part of the remark about well, he may have been unpleasant but - this is a man who's guilty of the deaths of no less than 1 million Iraqis over a period of 35 years. So there is no - he may have been a brutal tyrant, there is no but after that, there is no comma after that phrase - it's a period. Having said that, I can say that none of my aspirations for Iraq have come true. My worst fears, my greatest nightmares have all been exceeded. Feisal Istrabadi, former deputy Iraqi ambassador to the U.N, now at Indiana University law school where he founded the Center for the Study of the Middle East. Thanks for speaking with us.

ISTRABADI: Thank you.

YOUNG: And we also have news today out of Libya. The Pentagon confirms that the U.S. special forces have captured one of the key figures in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Ahmed Abu Khatallah was captured on Sunday. New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick interviewed him the month after the attack, at which time he denied being part of the attack. We'll soon post our interview with David and continue to follow today's news. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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