Heed wounded warrior senator’s warning on Iraq

By JOSH ROGIN | The Washington Post | Published: May 3, 2019

A lot has changed in Iraq since Army Lt. Col. Tammy Duckworth’s Black Hawk helicopter was shot down over Baghdad in 2004 — but some of the biggest problems there remain. Terrorists threaten the stability of the country. The government is facing enormous challenges. And the United States is struggling to help Iraqis hold it all together.

Now a freshman Democratic U.S. senator from Illinois, Duckworth returned to Iraq last week for the first time since she was wounded there. After meeting with U.S. military commanders on the ground, top Iraqi government officials and international representatives of all kinds, she came back to Washington to sound an alarm about urgent and unsolved problems in the fight against Islamic State that threaten their security and ours.

“It was my first time back since I was wounded, but really the whole point of it was, I wanted to know what was happening on the ground,” Duckworth told a small group of journalists Wednesday. “Iraq is on the precipice.”

The government in Baghdad, she said, is falling short in its commitments to ensure security and further prosperity — long-term challenges with which the United States is trying to assist. But one much more urgent problem is that ISIS, having largely retreated from Syria, is once again pervasive and active inside Iraq.

“They no longer hold territory, but they are very much everywhere,” she said.

Duckworth said the Iraqi government has taken some 30,000 widows and children of dead ISIS soldiers and put them in what amounts to “internment camps” in the desert, with no plan for what to do with them next. Of these, 10,000 are children under age 5. These are the family members of Iraqis who were among the most hard-core ISIS devotees.

ISIS fighters pass in and out of these camps freely, paying widows’ pensions and recruiting from among the children. While they are there, the terrorists take advantage of the free food and medical care.

“They are allowing themselves to be captured, to be taken to camps, where they are resting and rejuvenating,” said Duckworth. “They are actually using it to sort of do a reset.”

The U.S. government should be putting more pressure on Baghdad to come up with a real plan for how to integrate these people back into society, Duckworth said. But, she adds, that’s not the only growing security concern that needs urgent attention. Iranian-backed Shiite militias are taking root in areas that were held by Sunnis before ISIS took over. A lack of reconstruction progress is feeding poverty, which in turn is feeding more extremism.

The banking, energy and civil-society sectors are all struggling, which makes real stability only more elusive, she said. One would think that after fighting back ISIS at great sacrifice — twice, now — the Iraqi government would have more incentive to tackle these root problems.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military presence is the “rebar in the structure of the coalition,” Duckworth said, meaning that U.S. troops must not leave any time soon. U.S. military commanders on the ground admitted they were not consulted before President Donald Trump tweeted out his decision to withdraw from Syria, she said, and therefore, they cannot credibly reassure Iraqis the United States is there to stay.

Duckworth traveled with Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Angus King, I-Maine, whom she referred to as her “tripartisan delegation.” She said all of their Iraqi interlocutors had one consistent request: that the United States not abandon them after they have fought and bled so much.

“Iraqis spilled blood to save Baghdad from ISIS, and Iraqis have fought for this country,” she says she told Iraqi President Barham Salih. “But remember that I spilled my blood here, too.”

Duckworth said she is following the model of her hero, the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who led a bipartisan congressional effort with then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to normalize relations with Vietnam, the country where McCain spent more than five years in captivity. Duckworth wants Iraq to be a place where she can someday bring her children on vacation, to show them where their mother fought.

What’s ironic is that Duckworth never believed the Iraq invasion was justified, and instead she saw it as a dangerous distraction from the fight against al-Qaida in Afghanistan after 9/11. But when President George W. Bush gave the order, she volunteered to go. And now she has gone back, to make sure her sacrifice and the sacrifices of so many Iraqis were not in vain.

Washington should listen to Sen. Duckworth. The United States must increase its diplomatic and economic engagement in Iraq, declare its long-term commitment to Iraq’s security and push the Iraqi government to make sure another generation of young Americans and Iraqis don’t have to sacrifice more.

Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post.

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