By Frank-Jürgen Richter
One only has to watch the news for a few minutes, or browse the first few pages of a newspaper to know that the nation of Iraq is in the midst of a very deep crisis. In the span of no more than a few weeks, militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) crossed the border with Syria and managed to take over close to half of the country, including key oil cities, border crossings and military installations.
The crisis in Iraq is so deep and so distressing that some members of the international community have banded together in a way that has not been seen in many years: The United States and Iran have engaged in open dialogue to see how they can mutually assist the beleaguered nation.
Despite this unprecedented display of dialogue and cooperation between historic enemies, it seems that dialogue is the last thing on the agenda within Iraq’s leadership, and this is a very painful sight to see.
Few nations in the world could benefit more from an open dialogue than Iraq. With a history of Shi’ite and Sunni violence, and the Sunni militia ISIS taking over most of the country, old divisions are beginning to take centrestage once again. In addition, a decade of mismanagement by the United States and corruption in Iraqi politics have left Iraq unprepared.
With ISIS taking more and more territory, the Iraqi military has proven almost entirely useless and with Shi’ites suddenly fearing for their safety, civilian militias are becoming a distressing sight in daily life. As what is left of the Iraqi government and military loses grip on the country, the only viable solution is a united government where moderate voices from every corner of Iraq work together to fight extremism.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki is himself a Shi’ite and has so far refused to heed the calls by western leaders to bring a greater Sunni and Kurdish presence into his government. The Kurds, who have always felt themselves to be out of place in Iraq as it is, are seeing this as an opportunity to secure their territory and advance their own goal of independent statehood. None of this is helpful for those living under ISIS control, who are finding themselves in the middle of yet another war.
It is apparent even from a great distance away from this crisis that dialogue is the only viable way to bring this divided nation together to defeat their common enemy. If Mr Maliki is unable to do it, someone else will have to step up to fill the void. The most vital fact for Iraq’s people, its government and ministers to understand is that an open conversation between friends and rivals can achieve far more good than any amount of bullets ever could.
Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds are surely as divided as any three groups could be, but they can be united under that most simple of common goals: safety. Only ISIS wins if Iraq is cut in two. Shi’ites will surely be slaughtered en masse (a frightening trend that may have already begun in some parts of Iraq) and even Sunnis may not be safe from ISIS – any moderate voices will surely be silenced. As for the Kurds, their future is as uncertain as ever, but with a powerful enemy standing in front of them, the Kurdish people seem prepared to defend themselves as they have in Syria.
The question is, how should Iraq and its leaders go about starting this dialogue? In the simplest way possible: an open call for a united discussion. The prime minister can stand before his Parliament and nation, calling for unity through discussion. Mr Maliki should be hosting dialogue with leaders from every party and creed.
The United States wanted to finally move on from Iraq but there is no doubt that Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama will have to be heavily involved in facilitating any successful dialogue. Mr Obama and Mr Kerry know the value of dialogue and the intense chaos that can follow a failed dialogue (as evidenced by Syria’s civil war) and therefore should do everything in their power to ensure that the leaders of Iraq come together.
Should nothing be done to unite the Iraqi government, the nation and the region will be brought to a level of instability that may be difficult to recover from, and certainly any human and civil rights strides made by the US-led coalition forces in Iraq will be reversed by the deeply-religious and fanatical ISIS militants. As such, dialogue is not just important, it is critical to the survival of the Iraqi nation and perhaps an entire region of the world.
Frank-Jürgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community.