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Marine combat vet, Rep. Mike Coffman: How to end violence in a post-ISIS Iraq

Soldiers with Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces secure houses and streets during fighting against Islamic State militants to regain control of the eastern neighborhoods of Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016.

Soldiers with Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces secure houses and streets during fighting against Islamic State militants to regain control of the eastern neighborhoods of Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016.  (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

With Iraqi Security Forces fighting ISIS inside of Mosul, it is now realistic to assume that ISIS could soon be driven out of Iraq.  Observers now need to ask the question, what does a post-ISIS Iraq look like? If nothing changes, the Sunni Arab regions will, once again, return to being mired in a vicious cycle of sectarian violence. How to prevent such an outcome is a key question and I believe that unless the Sunni Arab regions of Iraq, once controlled by ISIS, perceive they have a path forward to becoming a full partner in a Shia-dominated government, this area will remain a breeding ground for terrorists.

To provide some background:  Prior to the 2003 U.S. led invasion of Iraq, the Sunni Arabs, at only twenty percent of the population, were the ruling elite of the country and enjoyed a privileged status over the majority Shia Arabs.

Under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, an authoritarian rule of the country was accomplished through a vertically integrated structure that placed all power at the central government in Baghdad.  Iraqi local and provincial authorities were merely administrative arms of the bureaucrats in Baghdad who dictated the orders from Saddam Hussein. 

After the U.S. led invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein, an Iraqi constitution was ratified in 2005.  Article 5 of the constitution contains a provision that allows provinces to band together to form a semiautonomous region(s).  Shortly after the constitution was ratified, the Kurds, under Article 5, formed what is now known as Kurdistan while the Sunni areas have not banded together.  Consequently, local and provincial governments in the Sunni areas of Iraq still have no more authority to make decisions than they did when the country was ruled under a dictatorship.

Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with a common sectarian enemy in the emerging majority Shia government of Iraq, the Sunni Arabs, at first, welcomed al Qaeda, a Sunni terrorist organization, into their communities despite never sharing the same vision for what they wanted to achieve beyond defeating Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces. 

By 2005, however, a noticeable split emerged between these two disparate parts of the insurgency because al Qaeda fighters were increasingly seen as outsiders terrorizing the Sunni Arab communities. As the Sunni tribal leaders came to see al Qaeda as an even greater threat than the Shias, they aligned with the U.S. military which armed them, trained them, and then paid these disaffected Sunni tribal militias to fight against al Qaeda.  This transformation, often referred to as the “Sunni Awakening,” was a turning point in defeating al Qaeda in Iraq. 

Unfortunately, in 2011, President Obama, against the advice of the intelligence and defense community, withdrew all remaining U.S. military forces from Iraq.  By severing our military-to-military relationships, we also lost our political influence within the Iraqi government.    

Immediately after the U.S. military pulled out of Iraq, Prime Minister Nori Maliki launched a systematic campaign to push the Sunnis Arabs out of the government creating an opening for ISIS, an organization evolved from Al Qaeda and battle-hardened in Syria, to spill over into Iraq and rapidly take control all of the Sunni-dominated regions who had no loyalty to the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Assuming the current offensive will expel ISIS from Iraq, I urge the incoming Trump administration to encourage the Sunnis to form, and the Iraqi government to accept, a semi-autonomous region, a “Sunnistan,” similar to Kurdistan. Doing so could go a long way toward creating the conditions where the Sunnis feel they have more say in governing themselves at the local and provincial levels. This could help bring stability to the country, reduce sectarian violence, and to prevent the Sunni Arab areas from, once again, becoming a safe haven for radical Islamic terrorists.

This solution is not perfect and it still requires an equitable distribution of the oil wealth of the country. A semi-autonomous region, however, can provide the Sunni Arabs with the non-violent political voice they need.  

U.S. Representative Mike Coffman is a member of the House Armed Services Committee. He is a Marine Corps combat veteran with a combined 21 years of military service and he is the only member of Congress to have served in both Iraq Wars.

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