Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No easy answers in Iraq

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Everyone who understands the troubles in Iraq and knows how to solve them please raise your hand. Don't worry. None of the decision makers in the West raised their hands either.

Some experts, of course, are certain about the causes of the crisis and the way out. The problem is they don't agree among themselves, leaving people like President Barack Obama with a plethora of competing certainties, which is often a prescription for paralysis and indecision.

The fact is, like so many problems and crises in the Mideast -- most of which are connected -- there are no easy answers, no simple solutions. Merely a list of bad options.

Some observers claim the 2003 invasion of Iraq in the name of democracy has led to today's problems, while others, notably former British prime minister Tony Blair, claim the situation would be just as bad, possibly worse, if Saddam Hussein was still in power.

The question, however, is irrelevant since it doesn't offer a roadmap out of the current inferno.

President Obama has ruled out boots on the ground to stop the violence in Iraq, partly because he doesn't think it will accomplish anything, but also because most Americans don't have the stomach for it.

He is sending a naval fleet to the region instead to prepare for possible air strikes. Of course dropping bombs won't solve any problems either, but targeted air strikes might be justified to diminish the worst excesses of ISIS or the Islamic State In Iraq and Syria. The extremist group has launched a powerful and effective insurgency to take over the country. Its goal is to create a single Islamic state out of Syria and Iraq, but it ultimately envisions a larger theocratic state encompassing Lebanon and Israel, too.

ISIS is affiliated with the Sunni sect of Islam, while Iraq's political elite is dominated by Shia Muslims. The two sects agree on many aspects of Islamic teachings, with the important exception of which group should rule the Muslim world. The tensions between the two groups, however, are mostly based on historic grievances over discrimination, rather than theological divisions, not unlike the ancient conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has lost the support of several factions, including the Sunni minority which has been increasingly marginalized. His leadership has been widely criticized as contributing directly to the sectarian violence now spreading across Iraq.

A change in leadership is unlikely to convince the extremists to surrender their arms, but if peace is ever re-established Al-Maliki will have to go in favour of a leader committed to accommodating all interests and groups.

The U.S. is considering a possible arrangement with Shia-dominated Iran to defeat the spreading insurgency, proving beyond doubt that politics (and war) make for strange bedfellows. Such a partnership alone, however, is unlikely to lead to long-term stability in the region, even if it succeeds in halting the violence.

The real lesson of the past decade is that the West cannot impose its will on the Middle East, at least not without a level of commitment that no one is prepared to make.

Instead, western leaders need to improve their listening skills and broaden the level of engagement.

Iran, as a regional power, cannot be ignored. Neither can the Sunni states of Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and members of the Gulf Co-operation Council. Each state has a horse in some race in the region, but they will all lose if they fail to co-operate and compromise.

In the end, if the region doesn't care enough to co-operate, then it is doomed to more violence. Perhaps when they have had their fill of blood, perhaps then they will be willing to negotiate a future together.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 17, 2014 A6

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