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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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  • Pleiades

    How can any of us take Mr. Istrabadi’s comments seriously? He should be in Iraq attempting to resolve this situation instead of at Indiana Univeristy. I cannot ennumerate the number of times I hear some “national” from another nation discussing a problem inside his/her nation from the safety of US. It should be totally and completely embarrassing to anyone doing such.

    • Doug Brockwell

      That’s ridiculous. This individual appears to have been in the United States for most of his life. Just because he’s ethnically from the region, he doesn’t have a right to live and work in the US? It seems like this would make him uniquely qualified to discuss US-Iraqi relations, not prohibited from it.

      • Pleiades

        it’s quite easy for him to support his viewpoint from the safety of the US, isn’t it? Why doesn’t he get some skin in the game if wants the Iraq he describes? America had some skin in the game, but his shiite friends ruin it through teating everyone poorly except other shiites.

  • ocdhickson

    I love the way Mr. Istrabadi slapped down the liberal’s favorite Iraq straw man (as served up by Robin Young). ‘Saddam may have been a brutal dictator but George W. Bush’.

    • D_from_Tennessee

      Saddam Hussein was a terrible murderous tyrant and Mr. Istrabadi makes a good point that we should not justify his leadership for the sake of keeping the area stable, despite his horrible acts. That justification, btw has been the narrative by people across the political spectrum, not just liberals. Only a partisan hack would apply it to liberals only. ocdhickson failed to share the rest of Mr. Istrabadi’s comment: “Having said that, I can say that none of my aspirations for Iraq have come true, my worst fears and greatest nightmares have been far exceeded.” And yes, George W. Bush!

      • ocdhickson

        I see what you did there…take a liberal straw man and create a group of straw men ‘people across the political spectrum’ as a way to normalize the notion. The “brutal tyrant but” argument has been a straw man owned by liberals since the invasion (see Fahrenheit 911 for one example) — an attempt to suggest that George W. Bush has taken this peaceful, idyllic country and done this injustice to it.

        I didn’t include the rest of his comments because Mr Istrabadi’s point was that the sentence ends with brutal tyrant responsible for the death of a million Iraqis “there is no but…or comma after that”. I noted exactly the portion of the interview that dealt with the straw man argument that Robin put forth.

        Despite your attempt to cloud the issue, Istrabadi made a clear distinction between his aspirations for Iraq and the fact that Hussein had to go.

        Oh, then you call me a name- – another standard liberal tactic.
        So predictable

        • D_from_Tennessee

          LMAO. You are desperate in your attempt to make this a right v left debate. What I got from Mr. Istabadi’s in full context comment was that although taking down SH was in the best interests of Iraqis, the ultimate outcome he and others had hoped for did not come to fruition. Even Paul Wolfowitz says Bush and others messed up on their strategy. You, my friend, are the one obsessed with some sort of political tactic. Did you even listen to the entire interview?

          • ocdhickson

            I certainly listened to the entire interview but I only commented on one tiny part of it that illustrates the straw man that Robin tried in vain to put out there. Not sure why you’re having so much trouble understanding that but keep on laughing if you want.

          • D_from_Tennessee

            Your comments are partisan. I believe Robin was addressing what many people have said and he responded that it was a good thing that SH was taken down but that the strategy for doing so may not have been the best way now that we see the result of how the Iraqi leadership was not all inclusive. Straw man or not, it doesn’t change the full context of what he said. As far as the simplistic way you describe the initial approval by Congress for the war and the later disapproval of appropriating more $ for it after more information was available to reveal they were misled in the beginning, Everyone was on board with it at first. Otherwise they would have been tagged as un-American. You have a knack for projecting your partisan views don’t you?

          • ocdhickson

            Yes my comments are partisan — overtly partisan. Robin on the other hand was trying to be covertly partisan by floating the straw man argument that Iraq would be better off if Saddam had been left in power; which I have documented to be an old liberal tactic with regard to the Iraq war.

            It was the 2004 election and not any high minded epiphany that brought the democrats to their assertion that the invasion was a mistake. Democrat politicos could care less if anybody considers them unAmerican — they only care about the next election. Open your eyes.

  • Mohamed

    Mr. Istrabadi sways the truth in two instances. First he claims that the shiaa are a majority and I challenge him to prove that scientifically from an independant source not by media or common belief. The second i will keep for later

    • D_from_Tennessee

      You accuse him of swaying the truth but do not offer to prove that scientifically from an independent source?

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