By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 29, 2014 – The formation of a national unity government in Iraq will be key to defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told National Public Radio Friday.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said it is clearly to America's advantage to oppose ISIL. American teams now in Iraq are looking at the threat posed by ISIL and the means Iraq has to oppose that threat, he added.
ISIL is a trans-regional terror organization that originated in Syria and now controls large portions of Northern and Western Iraq. Iraqi security forces in those areas collapsed and did not confront the extremist threat.
“It’s in our national interest to begin to think through how to counter that threat,” Dempsey said.
To do so, the United States needs a credible partner in the Iraqi government, the top U.S. military officer told NPR. For more than a decade, U.S. officials have stressed to Iraqi leaders that military solutions “were only a part of the equation -- that they had to take the opportunity to find a way to form a government that would work on behalf of all the people,” Dempsey said.
He said is disappointed that Iraqi leaders did not heed that advice and did not set up a government that reached out to all people of the nation. “My assessment of the situation we’re in today is not a military failure, but a failure of political leadership,” he noted.
ISIL's advance into Iraq was accompanied by reports of massacres of Iraqi service members and citizens. But because many Iraqis are dissatisfied with their government, the group has managed to attract allies. These groups are not natural allies of ISIL, however, and if Iraq goes the route of a unity government, Dempsey said he fully expects these ISIL sympathizers to peal away from the group.
President Barack Obama has asked the U.S. military to work on options for him. “Those [options] do include high-value individuals who are the leadership of ISIL, it includes potentially the protection of … critical infrastructure,” the chairman said. “And then there is the issue of blunting attacks by massed groups of ISIL.”
The American teams in Iraq are refining the intelligence picture of the group. American aircraft are flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over Iraq to color in that picture, “so that if the decision was made to support the Iraqi Security Forces as they confront ISIL, then we could do so,” Dempsey said.
Any options need to be precise, he noted.
“One thing we would absolutely have to be concerned about is that this doesn’t become an issue between Sunni and Shia, with us taking one side or the other,” the chairman said.
“There’s a great phrase that when there’s no center, there are only sides. And that’s why you’ve heard us -- all those of us who’ve had experience in Iraq -- state as a first principle that we really have to see what the Iraqis themselves, and in particular, the central government intends to do to try to get these groups into a better place,” he continued.
A lot depends on the assessment, Dempsey said. The American teams need to look at the Iraqi security forces and assess whether they can defend the nation.
“Once we have that assessment that will take one of two directions,” he said. “One is if they can defend Baghdad and we get indications that the central government intends to form a unity government that will begin to address the issues that have led to this uprising, if you will. Then I think that takes us on the path to provide a certain kind of support going forward."
But if the assessment is that Iraqi forces may not hold together, or the central government is not forming a national unity government, “we still have the ISIL challenge, but we would probably look at other ways to address with other regional partners,” Dempsey said.
Iran has national interests in Iraq, and that must be taken under consideration, Dempsey said. “Iran has been active in Iraq for a very long time,” he said. “I can say with some confidence that Iran, which has a deep interest in the Shia holy sites, is undoubtedly providing assistance and support and advice on how to secure those holy sites. That wouldn’t surprise me at all. In fact, I would be surprised if we didn’t find it.”
The level of support Iran is giving Iraq will influence what the United States does. “One of the things we need to find out is whether Iran is embedded in and advising and supporting the Iraqi security forces,” he said. “That will take us in one direction. If they’re not, that’ll take us in another. And it’s really about understanding facts on the ground before we make a decision on how to address them.”
The chairman said the United States will “look at Iran with a cold eye on where and when we may need to operate in the same space and toward what is potentially the same goal of countering ISIL. But I can state with some assurance that their goals in Iraq are not going to be completely aligned with ours, and we’re very clear about that.”