Army General: Iraq Must Do More to Engage, Empower Its Sunni Population

Susan Jones | March 29, 2017 | 11:36am EDT
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Army General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, March 29, 2017. (Screen grab from C-SPAN)

( - Army General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that "there is still much work to be done" to bridge the Sunni-Shi'a divide in Iraq, something that must be done to eradicate groups such as ISIS that are fueled by Sunni grudges.

"I know in my interactions with the (Iraqi) prime minister, we frequently talk about this," Votel said. "I know he is very concerned about it, and--and, but also I think recognizes the balance that will have to be achieved here in the region with a variety of -- of different -- different interests that are ongoing.

"And so I think he clearly recognizes that. But I would agree with you," Votel told Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.). "More will need to be done to ensure that the Sunni population feels engaged, empowered, and -- and a part of the government of Iraq, of the Iraqi people."

In his opening comments to the committee, Rep. Smith, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said the Baghdad government is "not inclusive enough of the Sunni population."

"I met with a Sunni tribal leader yesterday. You know, certainly (Shi'ite) Prime Minister Abadi is trying, whereas (former) Prime Minister al-Malaki did not. But there has not been much improvement," Smith said.

"There is still a feeling amongst the Sunni population that Baghdad is closer to Iran than it is to its own Sunni population, and until we fix that problem, whatever happens in Mosul, whatever happens elsewhere, if you have a disgruntled, dissatisfied, pushed-aside Sunni population in Iraq, you are going to have fertile ground for ISIS or al Qaeda or whatever extremist groups want to exploit it."

Smith said "the great challenge going forward" is to integrate Sunnis, so Iraq is not run by a "sectarian Shi'a government, but a government for Iraq."

Smith said the Sunnis also are concerned about the presence of Shi'a militias and Iranian-backed (Hezbollah) militias around Mosul. He said the "general feeling" is that "this continues to be a Shi'a-run country that is not making room for the Sunnis, and that, you know, undermines our entire effort, I think, to defeat these (terrorist) groups.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, a secular dictator of Sunni descent, Iraq's majority Shi'a population took control of the Iraqi government. Iran also is dominated by Shi’a Islam. Divisions between the two major branches of Islam date back centuries.

In a telephone conversation with Pentagon reporters on Tuesday, Lt.-Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, also discussed the Sunni neighborhoods in Mosul that support (Sunni) ISIS fighters.

Townsend said he just visited Mosul on Monday to meet with some of the Iraqi commanders, and he learned that some of the same Sunni neighborhoods that supported al Qaida in 2006 are now sources of support for ISIS.

"So I think that any place you have disenfranchised people, who feel like they're not part of the larger effort, and so in this case I will say, that -- that these are largely Sunni neighborhoods, that are in the west side of Mosul and somewhere in the past here, the government of Iraq failed to connect to these people. Failed to make them feel like they were part of the larger Iraqi state.

"This is how movements like ISIS make traction and--and make gains, only by finding support and terrorizing whoever doesn't support them."

Townsend indicated that military action to defeat ISIS won't be enough if there isn't a political solution as well:

"And, so, I think what's important after ISIS is defeated, is the government of Iraq has to reach out to these groups of people and make sure they feel like they have a future in part, you know, in the Iraqi state. Because until that happens, you're always going to have a disenfranchised population that's always looking for the thing that will represent their interests better than whatever's currently ruling their life."


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