United Nations

Iraq: On the Precipice?

By Bill Miller

The catastrophic events in Iraq that are unfolding daily are more significant than at any point in recent memory. Catastrophes often make for unforeseen alliances and dramatic geopolitical policy shifts.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is now calling itself the Islamic State (IS), steamrolled out of Syria into Iraq and appeared to be unstoppable in its march to Baghdad. The Iraqi military, which was far larger and better armed, was either unable or unwilling to confront this ragtag, but determined, force of about 10,000 fighters. ISIS racked up major gains in mostly Sunni-controlled areas of the country, yet still threatens the Kurdish and Shia controlled areas.

Along with its acquisition of land, which is estimated to be about 35,000 square miles or the size of Jordan, ISIS began to persecute minority Christians and Yazidi religious communities. Tens of thousands of Christians have fled for their lives. Simultaneously, the world was riveted on the minority Yazidis community that had to escape to Mt. Sinjar to avoid certain annihilation.

What made the situation even more dangerous was that Mount Sinjar is a rocky, barren hilltop about 67 miles long and 6 miles wide, protruding like a camel’s back with a daytime high temperatures of 110 degrees, as Kieran Dwyer, Communications Chief for the UN Office for the coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, recently reported from Erbil. Dwyer also shared other staggering statistics:

-- Since August 3, there has seen a massive dislocation of 200,000 people, as armed groups have ramped up their violence, and there are more than 1.2 million displaced people.

-- The UN High Commission for Refugees is providing protection and assisting local authorities with shelter, including mattresses and blankets.

-- The UN World Food Program set up four communal kitchens in that Governorate and has provided 2 million meals in the past two weeks. WFP also arranged for one metric ton of high energy bars to be air dropped by the Iraqi Government across Sinjar Mountain.

-- The UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, has provided drinking water and rehydration salts to help prevent or treat diarrhea, as well as provisions of high energy biscuits for 34,000 children under the age of five in the past week.

-- The UN Population Fund is supporting over 1,300 pregnant women with hygiene supplies and helping local authorities with medical supplies to support 150,000 people.

The UN has declared a 'Level 3 Emergency' that will generate more quickly additional financial and material resources to assist those in need. The United Nations, in one of its largest humanitarian relief efforts, announced a four-day airlift of tents and emergency aid supplies to help meet the needs of the half million people in northern Iraq who have fled the violence of ISIS.

Even in the chaos, there is a glimmer of hope, given that the Kurdish Peshmerga, a fighting force whose name means “those who confront death,” and the Iraqi Army -- backed by US airstrikes -- were able to re-capture the Mosul Dam, as well as turn back ISIS so that thousands of Yazidis could escape from Mt. Sinjar.

Several suggestions have been proffered as what should be done in Iraq to confront the ISIS threat. While returning from South Korea, Pope Francis sanctioned intervening in Iraq to stop Islamist militants from persecuting not only Christian, but all religious minority groups. This is a dramatic turnaround, given that the Vatican normally eschews the use of force. His caveat was that the strategy must be discussed by the international community, possibly at the UN, so this would not be perceived as 'a true war of conquest.' It would also not be decided by one country -- which was a direct reference to the US's successful and controversial aerial support of the Kurds and Iraqi forces as they attempt to reverse the ISIS military gains.

Shortly thereafter, French President Francois Hollande called for an international conference to discuss ways of confronting the Islamic State insurgents who have seized control of territory in Iraq and Syria. He indicated that a global strategy would be necessary.

Both suggestions tie directly into President Barack Obama's intention to preside over a meeting of the United Nations Security Council during his attendance at the UN’s annual General Assembly meeting in September. Specifically, Obama's agenda will focus upon counterterrorism and the threat of foreign fighters traveling to conflict zones and joining terrorist organizations. It is estimated that over 12,000 foreign terrorist fighters have enjoined the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

Each month the presidency of the UN Security Council rotates among the 15 member body, thus giving each country the opportunity to set the agenda and lead meetings of the most powerful of the six UN Organs. President Obama’s attendance will make the upcoming meeting the first Head of Government-level Security Council session since 2009, which coincidentally was when his presence led to the unanimous passage of a resolution meant to strengthen safeguards against nuclear proliferation.

Arguably, there are always potential unexpected pitfalls at the UN. Two examples would be if some of the key heads of the other permanent members -- UK, Russia, China and France -- did not attend, or if someone on the Security Council or in the General Assembly equates Israel's recent action in Gaza as terrorism or a war crime. Regardless, the UN is the logical and legal venue to broach this international challenge that must have a broad international coalition and wide support if the violence in Iraq is to be curtailed.

Additionally, all major players in the region, even ones that have had a traditional animosity to one another such as Iran vs. Saudi Arabia and the US, must be at the table. Regardless of previous slights and negative perceptions, they all must participate in the deliberations and sign onto the mutually-agreed upon strategy to de-fang ISIS and return stability to the region.

Although many Americans have short memories when it comes to historical lessons, it is critical to remember that a major reason for the disasters occurring in many areas of the Middle East can be traced directly back to the misguided and illegal invasion of Iraq by former President George W. Bush in March of 2003. Allegedly, the US went to Iraq to disarm Saddam of weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist.

When the bogus WMD argument collapsed, the rationale quickly moved to regime change and then to establishing democracy in the Arab world. The real reasons were to control the oil fields and re-do that area so it could be manipulated by Western interests.

In reality, the legacy of the biggest US foreign blunder in history left Iran as the powerhouse in the region, converted Iraq into a powder keg for conflict among the Sunnis and Shias, got 200,000 Iraqis and over 4,000 American military killed, and gave the American taxpayer a bill for $2 trillion, which is a figure that will continue to rise because of the thousands of troops that will need medical and psychological assistance, as well as Iraq requesting financial, military and technical assistance in the future.

Tragically, some media outlets, such as Fox News and many right-wing talk radio stations are putting the same purveyors of misinformation, disinformation and lies back on the air to re-write history on how the Iraq War was really a glowing success. According to many of these revisionists, it was not their fault when the conditions deteriorated, and all the US needs to do is re-engage in Iraq and Syria by sending in ground troops. These arguments are absolutely ludicrous and false.

The neoconservatives, such as former Vice-President Dick Cheney, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, US Administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer and Bill Kristol, just to mention a few, have vocally defended one of the most indefensible and failed periods of American history.

In a democracy it is critical to have a cross-section of ideas and stimulating debate on Iraq and other issues, but it is questionable and foolish to heed the advice of such a devious and counterproductive group that adheres to the nonsensical tenets that if only the US had stayed longer, left more troops or invested more blood and treasure in that region, there would have been a positive outcome.

They refuse to recognize that neither the Iraqis nor the Iranians wanted the US to stay and the American public was turning against a failed war. Couple that with the fact that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did everything in his power to isolate the Sunnis from any power-sharing or involvement in the political, financial and cultural facets of Iraq. That was a recipe for a civil war.

From the despicable beheading of freelance photographer James Foley to the imposition of Draconian Sharia Law that violates human and civil rights, the challenges in Iraq are multiplying daily. Probably no one in the world knows this better than UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who said recently, '... I can bring world leaders to the river, but I cannot force them to drink.'

The situation, especially in Iraq and the Middle East, has reached crisis proportions. When the leaders of the world meet next month at the UN, it is time for them to 'drink the water' for everyone's benefit.

Bill Miller, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN and is the Producer/Moderator of “Global Connections Television.”