TIME Congress

House GOP Looks to Authorize Obama’s ISIS Strategy

Barack Obama John Boehner
US President Barack Obama (R) talks with Speaker of the House, John Boehner, R-Ohio, during a meeting with the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Sept. 9, 2014. Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

Republicans look to schedule a vote authorizing the President's plan to "destroy" the militant group ISIS

House Republicans indicated Thursday morning that they would support President Barack Obama’s strategy to defeat Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria, despite misgivings that he hasn’t laid out enough detail about his plans.

“At this point in time it’s important that we give the President what he’s asking for,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters.

Boehner said he supports the President’s request to arm and equip the Syrian rebels, but he ripped Obama for not including “all that we can do” to defeat the terrorist threat from the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

“A F-16 is not a strategy,” Boehner said. “Air strikes alone will not accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish. And the President has made clear that he doesn’t want U.S. boots on the ground. Well somebody’s boots have to be on the ground. … I would never tell the enemy what I was willing or unwilling to do.”

Boehner’s comments followed supportive remarks from other members of his Republican conference earlier in the day, giving Obama rare congressional support as the midterm elections approach.

“I think the vast majority of us understand that we need to get this done,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said. “You can’t have 535 commanders in chief. It may not be the perfect plan, it may not be everything you want, but you either have to vote against doing anything or you have to support the Commander-in-Chief in this case. Partisanship has to go out the window when it comes to defending our country.”

“I’m willing to support the president’s strategy and giving him the authorization he wants and the money he wants to try to see if this plan will work,” said Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), who added that “most” of the House Republican conference would support the President. “It’s worth a shot.”

The conference has yet to figure out the way in which it would authorize the President’s plan, which includes new air strikes in Syria and expanded efforts to train and equip the Syrian rebels. The quickest method would be to attach a provision to a short-term government funding bill that needs to pass by the end of the month to avert a government shutdown. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said Thursday that the House would employ this method to vote on the President’s plan next week.

Obama has said he already has the executive authority to act without congressional support but that he would “welcome” it as a show of American unity.

TIME Foreign Policy

Rand Paul Calls Obama’s ISIS Plan ‘Unconstitutional’

But he does support the intervention

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) agreed with President Barack Obama’s strategy to combat the threat of Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria on Wednesday night, but criticized Obama’s methods as unconstitutional.

“It doesn’t in any way represent what our Constitution dictates nor what our founding fathers intended,” Paul, a likely 2016 presidential contender said on Fox News. “So it is unconstitutional what he’s doing.

“He should have come before a joint session of Congress, laid out his plan—as he did tonight—and then called for an up or down vote on whether or not to authorize to go to war,” Paul added. “I think the President would be more powerful [and] the country would have been more united.”

In his address to the nation Wednesday, Obama said the U.S. would expand its air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and provide funding to train and arm the Syrian opposition. He also reiterated his position that he has the executive authority to do so without congressional approval but that he would welcome congressional support as a sign of American unity.

TIME Military

The Obstacles in Obama’s New ISIS Plan

President pledges a "steady, relentless effort" to destroy ISIS, but questions remain

The first U.S. war against Iraq began in 1991 with 37 days of nonstop bombing. The second Iraq war unleashed 2,500 air missions in the first 24 hours in 2003. The third Iraq war—declared by President Barack Obama in an address to the nation Wednesday night, where he expanded it to include Syria—is trading “shock and awe” for what Obama says will be a “comprehensive and sustained” military campaign.

Those first two wars were against Saddam Hussein and his forces. This third conflict is against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, a group of perhaps 10,000 dedicated Islamist terrorists who have proclaimed an Islamic state the size of Britain that straddles large chunks of both Iraq and Syria.

Will a small-bore and prolonged mission—perhaps three years, according to some Pentagon officials—get the job done?

Initial reaction from military experts was mixed. Tom Donnelly, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, termed the President’s words “very thin gruel.” Donnelly focused on what he saw as the mismatch between rhetoric and reality.

“It was not a go-to-war speech, and it’s anomalous, to put it euphemistically, to describe ISIS as evil—which he did in all but name—and a grave threat to Americans and their interests—which he did explicitly—but to recommend a drawn-out campaign of pinprick airstrikes and a ground effort that will be paced by a very divided Iraq and a Syrian opposition,” Donnelly said.

David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general, expressed more optimism. “President Obama’s announcement signifies what looks to the next phase of the `long war’ that began 13 years ago,” said Barno, now with the Center for a New American Security. ISIS “will have no safe havens in the region from U.S. attack.”

But an Air Force air-power expert said he didn’t hear enough nuts-and-bolts from Obama to be able to judge the expanded campaign’s chances of success. “The devil is in the details,” said David Deptula, a retired lieutenant general who commanded the air war over Afghanistan in its early days. “Airpower needs to be applied like a thunderstorm—not a drizzle—24/7 constant over-watch, with force used against every move of [ISIS] forces and personnel.”

Waging war against a non-state actor—even if it has declared the creation of what it calls the Islamic State—requires a different strategy than the earlier wars. Obama detailed a multi-pronged offensive against ISIS that will boost by 50% the nearly 1,100 U.S. troops defending U.S. interests in Iraq (475 more are now headed to Iraq, the Pentagon said after Obama’s speech).

The plan could double or triple the average of five daily airstrikes the U.S. has launched against ISIS targets in Iraq over the past month from Air Force and Navy warplanes, as well as unmanned drones. Obama also announced plans to train and equip the more-moderate rebels inside Syria who have been battling both ISIS and the government of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

As of Wednesday, the U.S. had conducted 154 attacks on ISIS targets over the past month, destroying or damaging 162 vehicles, including a pair of tanks. While that number may seem modest, the truth is that ISIS doesn’t have a large army. And what it does have has been able to flee into Syria “with impunity,” a senior Administration official conceded.

No longer, Obama said: “I will not hesitate to take action against [ISIS] in Syria, as well as Iraq.” A serious air campaign will eliminate the Syrian sanctuary and make it difficult for ISIS forces to move or mass without risking death from the skies.

Obama is betting that the American public will support a long-range strategy that grinds down ISIS a single bomb or missile at a time, so long as it risks few U.S. lives and shows signs of progress. “Our ultimate goal is to destroy the organization,” a top Obama national security aide said. “It’s a long-term proposition.”

Senior Administration officials took pains to explain to reporters just before Obama’s speech how different his war is from the earlier pair in Iraq and Afghanistan. They likened it to the below-the-radar anti-terror campaigns the U.S. has been conducting in Somalia and Yemen with scant public attention.

They suggested strikes against targets in Syria might not happen until solid intelligence can pinpoint ISIS targets worth hitting. “The U.S. military is ready to conduct direct action against [ISIS] targets in Syria,” a senior Pentagon official said after the speech. “Decisions about when to conduct these actions will be made at a prudent time as we continue to prosecute our comprehensive strategy against these [ISIS] terrorists.”

Vexing challenges remain. Building the moderate Syrian rebels into a fighting force capable of prevailing over ISIS will be tough, given the beating they have endured over the last three years of the Syrian civil war. Administration officials declined to say what nations, if any, would join U.S. warplanes in striking ISIS targets, suggesting allies share the leeriness of a growing number of Americans over Obama’s go-slow approach to ISIS.

Until Tuesday, the air attacks had been limited to attacking ISIS targets inside Iraq that threatened U.S. interests or risked humanitarian catastrophe. But such niceties have now been scrapped. “We are lifting the restrictions,” a senior Administration official said shortly before the President addressed the nation, “on our air campaign.”

TIME Iraq

Kerry, Iraqi P.M. Embrace Unity to Defeat Insurgency

(BAGHDAD) — With a new Iraqi government finally in place and a growing Mideast consensus on defeating insurgent threats, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Iraq’s Shiite leader on Wednesday to quickly deliver more power to wary Sunnis — or jeopardize any hope of defeating the Islamic State group.

Kerry landed in the Iraqi capital just two days after newly sworn Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seated his top government ministers, a crucial step toward restoring stability in a nation where security has spiraled out of control since the beginning of the year.

The trip marks the first high-level U.S. meeting with al-Abadi since he become prime minister, and it aimed to symbolize the Obama administration’s support for Iraq nearly three years after U.S. troops left the war-torn country. But it also signaled to al-Abadi, a Shiite Muslim, that the U.S. was watching to make sure he gives Iraqi Sunnis more control over their local power structures and security forces, as promised.

Al-Abadi’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for years shut Sunnis out of power and refused to pay tribal militias salaries or give them government jobs — and in turn sowed widespread resentment that Islamic State extremists seized on as a recruiting tool.

Al-Abadi hosted Kerry in the ornate presidential palace where Saddam Hussein once held court, and which the U.S. and coalition officials later used as office space in the years immediately following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In brief remarks following their meeting, al-Abadi noted that Iraq’s violence is largely a spillover from the neighboring civil war in Syria, where the Islamic State militants have a safe haven.

“Of course, our role is to defend our country, but the international community is responsible to protect Iraq, and protect the whole region,” al-Abadi said, speaking in English. “What is happening in Syria is coming across to Iraq. We cannot cross that border — it is an international border. But there is a role for the international community and for the United Nations … and for the United States to act immediately to stop this threat.”

Kerry praised the new Iraqi leadership for what he described as its “boldness” in quickly forming a new government and promising to embrace political reforms that would give more authority to Sunnis and resolve a longstanding oil dispute between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish government in the nation’s north.

“We’re very encouraged,” Kerry said. He assured al-Abadi that President Barack Obama will outline plans later Wednesday “of exactly what the United States is prepared to do, together with many other countries in a broad coalition, in order to take on this terrorist structure, which is unacceptable by any standard anywhere in the world.”

Kerry’s trip comes on the eve of a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he and Arab leaders across the Mideast will discuss what nations can contribute to an ever-growing global coalition against the Islamic State. The U.S and nine other counties — Canada, Australia and across Europe — agreed last week to create a united front against the mostly Sunni extremist group that has overrun much of northern Iraq and Syria. Thursday’s meeting in Jeddah seeks to do much of the same and will gage the level of support from the Sunni-dominated Mideast region. Kerry also was to visit Jordan.

Officials hope to have a strategy blueprint against the Islamic State, backed up with specific steps nations are willing to take, by the opening of the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York at the end of the month. Obama was expected to discuss U.S. commitments in a televised address Wednesday from the White House.

White House officials said Tuesday that Obama will ask Congress to quickly authorize the arming and training of Syrian opposition forces but will press forward without formal sign-off from lawmakers on a broader military and political effort to combat the Islamic State group.

The president’s broader strategy could include more wide-ranging airstrikes against targets in Iraq and possibly in Syria, and hinges on military and political commitments from allies in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.

The U.S. already has launched about 150 airstrikes on Islamic State militants in Iraq over the past month, a mission undertaken at the invitation of the Iraqi government and without formal authorization from Congress. And it has sent military advisers, supplies and humanitarian aid to help Iraqi national troops and Kurdish forces beat back the insurgents. It was not clear what, if any, military action Obama would be willing to take in Syria, where he has resisted any mission that might inadvertently help President Bashar Assad and his government in Damascus, which has so far survived a bloody three-year war against Sunni rebels. Obama has ruled out putting U.S. combat troops on the ground.

Peter Neumann, a leading terrorism expert at Kings College London, this week estimated that more than 12,000 foreigners from 74 counties — including about 100 Americans — have gone to Syria to fight with Sunni rebel groups, including the Islamic State. It was not clear how many of them have joined the Islamic State as opposed to moderate rebel fighters or even other extremists.

How to dry up foreign funding for the Islamic State would also be a key priority at the conference, said a senior U.S. official, as well as countering insurgent propaganda that uses an extremist view of Islam to attract religious recruits. The official briefed reporters under ground rules that he would not be identified.

But much of the attention at the Jeddah meeting will be on how much military support nations are willing to send to Iraq and moderate Sunni rebels in Syria. That could include intelligence and supplies, and use of deadly force, including airstrikes.

The senior U.S. official said al-Abadi has promised to create a national guard of local fighters to secure each of Iraq’s 18 provinces, each of which is run by a governor. That would ensure that the Iraqi Army and its mostly Shiite force would not be in charge of security in Sunni regions. In doing so, that would bring salaried jobs, government pensions and other benefits to areas of Iraq that for years largely were snubbed under al-Maliki’s eight years in power.

TIME White House

Understanding the ISIS Threat to Americans at Home

Resident of Tabqa city touring the streets on a motorcycle waves Islamist flag in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city
A resident of Tabqa city touring the streets on a motorcycle waves an Islamist flag in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city, Syria, on Aug. 24, 2014 Stringer—Reuters

Obama makes his case for increasing attacks on the Islamic extremist group

President Barack Obama will tell the country Wednesday why he is stepping up military action against the terrorist group that calls itself the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”, also known as ISIS or ISIL. His biggest challenge may be reconciling for war weary Americans his administration’s conflicting messages about whether the group poses an immediate homeland threat to the United States.

On the one hand, Attorney General Eric Holder has said western fighters joining ISIS and returning home radicalized are the national security danger he worries about most. “We are seeing, I would say, an alarming rise in the number of American and European Union nationals who have been going to Syria to help extremist groups,” Holder told TIME last month. “This represents a grave threat to our security,” he said.

But in a thorough presentation on Sept. 3 at the Brookings Institution, outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, presented a less scary picture. ISIS has no cells in the U.S., Olsen said, “full stop.” Further, Olsen said, “we have no credible information” that the group “is planning to attack the U.S.” ISIS, Olsen said “is not al Qaeda pre-9/11.”

So is the group a direct threat to Americans at home, and is Obama right to increase military action against the group?

Holder says the danger comes from the combination of westerners joining ISIS and the expert bomb-makers working for the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It is not clear what if any evidence exists of such collaboration yet. On the one hand, AQAP has issued statements in support of ISIS, and both groups are active in Syria and Iraq; on the other, al Qaeda and ISIS split in the last year after a debate over tactics and territory.

Several senior administration officials tell TIME they have seen no evidence of direct contact between individual members of AQAP and ISIS.

That said, ISIS doesn’t have to threaten Americans at home to warrant military action against them abroad, U.S. officials argue. The group’s military successes in Syria and Iraq threaten U.S. and European interests in the Middle East, Obama says. “We did an assessment on the ground,” Obama told Meet The Press on Sept. 7, and concluded that to protect American personnel and diplomatic facilities the U.S. needed “to launch air strikes to ensure that towns like Erbil were not overrun, critical infrastructure, like the Mosul Dam was protected, and that we were able to engage in key humanitarian assistance programs that have saved thousands of lives.”

And the potential threat of ISIS targeting the U.S. in the future is real, administration officials say. More conservative observers like Olsen agree that it is better to go on the offensive against ISIS now than to risk them becoming a bigger threat to Americans later. “ISIL poses a multi-faceted threat to the United States,” Olsen said at Brookings, and it “views the U.S. as a strategic enemy.” He says ISIS, “has the potential to use its safe haven to plan and coordinate attacks in Europe and the U.S.” Foreign fighters joining ISIS, “are likely to gain experience and training and eventually to return to their home countries battle-hardened and further radicalized,” Olsen says.

“Allowed to proceed on the path they’re on, in other words, left unchecked, they would turn their sights more to the West and potentially to the United States,” Olsen says. That, presumably, is the case Obama will make to the American people on Wednesday evening.

TIME Military

Obama’s Military Options Against Islamist Militants

IRAQ-CONFLICT
Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters target ISIS positions near Mosul in northern Iraq on Tuesday. JM LOPEZ / AFP / Getty Images

He'll reveal his choices to the nation Wednesday night

To understand why President Obama has such a tough job when he explains to the nation Wednesday night what he intends to do about the Islamist jihadists overrunning Iraq and Syria, just step back 575 days.

“After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home,” he told a cheering Congress in his State of the Union address Feb. 12, 2013. “Because of them, we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al Qaeda.”

Instead, he’s sending troops back to Iraq to combat a virulent al Qaeda offshoot. Politically, it’s going to be a difficult sales job for a President whose saw it as his mission, when first elected to the White House six years ago, to extricate the U.S. from the Iraq and Afghan wars. In a twist, he has now vowed to “defeat” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

That’s not an easy military challenge, given the restrictions imposed by geography, conflicting alliances and the curbs Obama himself has placed on the use of U.S. military force. “The United States simply does not have a near-term option that offers a clear chance of victory or stability in Syria, and may not have one for years to come,” military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, warned Tuesday.

“You are no longer fighting an insurgency,” the masked killer belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria said in the video purporting to show the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley released Aug. 19. “We are an Islamic army, and a state.”

Obama’s challenge Wednesday night will be to convince the American public—increasingly fearful of the potential ISIS threat—that he’s serious about defeating them without launching a third U.S.-led, post-9/11 war.

So far, the only thing Obama has declared about his military intentions is that it won’t involve U.S. boots on the ground. That’s left some military experts seething. “My hero growing up was Rocky Marciano,” says Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general who led U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000. “If Rocky Marciano said before a heavyweight championship fight, `I’m not going to throw a right hook all throughout this fight, that’s off the table’—why would you tell your enemy what you’re not going to do?”

With that arrow self-plucked from his quiver, look for Obama to reach for these Wednesday night:

Allies—What nations will he enlist in the fight—and how much will they be willing to do? Under the ancient axiom that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, Obama finds himself tacitly allied with Iran and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. ISIS, along with other rebel groups, has been trying to topple Assad for years. Obama himself has called for Assad to step down in hopes of ending a Syrian civil war that has killed nearly 200,000. How much military help are nearby nations that have stayed largely on the sidelines in the fight against ISIS, including Jordan and Turkey, willing to give? How many Arab nations are willing to send ground troops into Iraq, and perhaps Syria, to root out ISIS? Will Britain and France, along with well-armed Arab states like Saudi Arabia, be willing to attack ISIS?

Training—Obama is likely to propose a major push to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels to battle ISIS, and to expand counter-terrorism operations in the region.

Troops—The U.S. already has some special-operations troops on the ground inside Iraq, as part of a growing contingent of more than 1,000 troops there to protect U.S. interests. They’re critical to assessing the relative strengths of ISIS and Iraqi units. But Obama has made clear the heavy lifting will have to be done by local soldiers. “The boots on the ground have to be Iraqi” inside Iraq, he said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “And in Syria, the boots on the ground have to be Syrian.”

Targets—The U.S. military has bombed ISIS targets in Iraq about 150 times in the past month. The attacks, coordinated with ground-based Iraqi security forces, including Kurdish pesh merga forces, have stalled ISIS’s advance. The U.S. partnered with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance force after invading that country in 2001 and drove the Taliban from power. That could serve, Pentagon officials say, as a template for an expanded anti-ISIS campaign.

Obama is prepared to expand U.S. bombing into Syria, denying ISIS forces the sanctuary they have enjoyed since entering Iraq early this year. On Sunday, he declared the U.S. “will hunt down [ISIS] members and assets, wherever they are.” The world will be watching Wednesday night to see if his actions match his words.

 

TIME Iraq

What the ISIS Flag Says About the Militant Group

The black and white standard of the Sunni militants gives some insight into how the group sees itself

The world is now becoming accustomed to seeing images of the stark black-and-white flag whose bearers are threatening to remake the Middle East and who have already taken responsibility for numerous acts of murder, massacres and ethnic cleansing across Iraq and Syria.

But what does the standard of the self-declared Islamic State–also known by its previous name, ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and greater Syria–tell observers about the goals of the organization and its supporters?

Volumes, say experts in Islamic militant movements. The color, the calligraphy, and the choice of words on the flag all serve as a key to reading the group’s history as well as unfolding a road map of where it sees itself going.

The flag is black with the words La ‘ilaha ‘illa-llah – “There is no God but God” – emblazoned across the top in white in a somewhat coarse, handwritten Arabic script. It’s a very different kind of typeface from the more elaborate calligraphy on the Saudi flag, for example, that also includes this same shahada, or Islamic statement of faith. Even more rough around the edges is the white circle in the middle of the ISIS flag. Inside it are three words: “God Messenger Mohammed.” It’s an interesting choice of word order given that the second part of the shahada is “and Mohammed is God’s messenger.”

The reason for the circle and those words is that they’re a copy of what’s known as the Seal of Mohammed, which the prophet himself is believed to have used in his lifetime to seal letters he wrote to foreign leaders, asking them to join him. A version of the seal purported to belong to Othman, one of Mohammed’s companions, is now permanently on display at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. The use of the seal, critics of ISIS say, is intended to add a veneer of historical authenticity to its mission.

“The power of the flag comes from the fact that the word ‘Allah’ is on it. The word itself is seen as sacred by Muslims and hence it becomes sacrilegious to desecrate the flag,” explains Hayder al Khoei, an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House in London. A week ago, for example, there were protests in Beirut at which ISIS flags were burned, with activist starting a #BurnISIS campaign meant to rival the ALS ice bucket challenge. Afterwards, the Lebanese Minister of Justice, Ashraf Rifi, asked that the burning of the flag be banned and that violators be given the “sternest punishment,” because burning anything with the word Allah on it is viewed as an insult to Islam. The issue has stirred up emotions across the Islamic world. An Egyptian feminist, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, recently held an extremely graphic protest intended to desecrate the ISIS flag, stirring up further controversy.

“The words are what makes the flag so powerful,” al Khoei says. “It is a very weird and awkward situation for Muslims because ISIS is an evil terrorist organization with an actual holy flag.”

The black and white flag’s meaning is further complicated by the fact that ISIS did not create the image it bears. Rather, it appropriated the flag from other jihad-oriented groups, says Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on Islamic fundamentalist movements and the Research Director of the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College. Al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (active in Yemen and Saudi Arabia), and the al-Shabab group in Somalia have all used the same flag, he says.

“The most important thing is the color. This raya, the solid blank flag, was the Prophet Mohammed’s war banner,” he explains. “This flag compresses time and space – it harks back to where they came from and where they are going. It is not just the color of jihad and of the caliphate, but it represents the coming of what some believers see as the final battle and the day of resurrection.” In other words, he explains, there’s a kind of Islamic end-of-days element in the flag, pitting the forces of Islam against the Christian West.

To some Muslims, the choice of flag is worrying because of the symbolic weight of its absence of color. A look at other Islamists militant movements in the region makes them seem almost tame by comparison; Hamas’ flag is green, Hizbollah’s yellow. But like the flags of other jihadist groups the al-Nusra Front and Hizb ut-Tahrir—which also seeks a worldwide caliphate to replace nation-states laid out by Western powers nearly a century 100 years ago—the ISIS flag is set in stark, featureless black.

“The flag represents a lot things outside observers don’t realize, but people in the Middle East understand the importance of colors,” says Ranstorp. “The point of the war banner is showing the will to destroy the world order. If one understood that properly, you could use that to detect who is really involved.” For example, he says, the law enforcement and intelligence communities could be savvier about detecting who among youth in Westerns countries is being drawn to the ideology and might end up getting lured to fight for ISIS abroad.

“There is a meaning to these symbols, that could be utilized, but we haven’t really. In many places they are selling rings with the same Seal of Mohammed. You’ll find it on many Islamic State social media sites. This symbol tells us where they have come from, the sacredness of their mission and what they want – a caliphate.”

 

TIME Iraq

Iraq Approves New Unity Government, Sets the Stage for Combatting ISIS

Iraq's new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, right, and Ammar al-Hakim, left, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, during the session to approve the new government in Baghdad on Sept. 8, 2014 Hadi Mizban—AP

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hails the new administration as a "major milestone"

Iraq’s parliament has approved a new government, setting the stage for expanded U.S. military support to battle the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

The new cabinet was sworn in amid mounting international and domestic pressure to end a weeks-long political deadlock between the nation’s Shi‘ite majority and its Sunni and Kurdish minorities. Incoming Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shi‘ite, will be flanked by Sunni and Kurdish deputies, both of whom have also been appointed key ministerial posts.

Al-Abadi released a statement, in which he vowed to “work with all communities in Iraq.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the new government a “major milestone.”

Yet the power-sharing deal wasn’t reached until a stormy Monday parliamentary session spilled well into the night, just barely staving off the Wednesday constitutional deadline. Several key posts were also left vacant, including those of Defense and Interior Minister. Al-Abadi has promised to fill those positions within a week.

The new government arrives at a precarious juncture. Over the past few months, ISIS militants have taken control over vast swaths of Iraq’s northern territory and continue to pose a serious threat to the central authorities.

Many Sunni rebels have been recruited into the extremist group’s swelling ranks after becoming estranged by a government seen to support indiscriminate attacks against Sunnis. There is also a long-standing conflict between Baghdad and Kurds over oil revenues, the nonpayment of which has weakened the Kurdish resistance against the extremists.

Al-Abadi’s predecessor Nouri al-Maliki resigned in August amid accusations from the Sunni and Kurdish communities that he was bolstering sectarianism. The new Prime Minister touched on these tensions by praising Shi‘ite militias and citizens who stopped ISIS fighters from reaching Baghdad this summer, but also declaring that “any armed formation outside the authority of the state is banned,” Reuters reports.

The new cabinet sets the stage for U.S. President Barack Obama’s expected announcement Wednesday of a wider battle strategy against ISIS that would hinge on inclusive reforms in Iraq.

“Now is the time for Iraq’s leaders to govern their nation with the same vision and sense of purpose that helped bring this new government together in the first place,” Kerry said in response to the new government. “In that effort they should know that the United States will stand shoulder to shoulder with Iraqis as they implement their national plan.”

However, huge uncertainties remain over what impact the power-sharing deal will have. Sunni militants have indicated that they may switch sides if the power structure in Baghdad was reformed, the BBC reports, but there are also doubts over what reforms the election of al-Abadi, who comes from the same political party as al-Maliki, would bring. Al-Maliki was sworn into the mainly ceremonial role of co–Vice President on Monday.

“Appointing someone from the same Dawa party to succeed [al-Maliki] is like appointing a Baathist to replace Saddam Hussein,” a tribal leader going by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Zubaai told the British broadcaster.

In addition, the Kurdish parliamentary delegation has reportedly set a three-month deadline for sorting out their differences with Baghdad.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says “almost every country” has a role in fighting ISIS.

TIME Iraq

Obama Pushes Back on ISIS Criticism

The President pushed back on critics of his stance towards ISIS during a recent television appearance

President Obama pushed back against critics of his handling of ISIS militants in Iraq on Meet The Press Sunday, as the first guest of new host Chuck Todd.

“Number one, this is a serious threat,” Obama said. “We have the capacity to deal with it.”

The President added that he plans to announce a more detailed strategy in a speech this week.

“This is not going to be an announcement of ground troops. This is not the Iraq war,” he said. “It’s similar to the counterterrorism campaigns we’ve been doing for the past 5-6-7 years.”

TIME foreign affairs

Iraqi Refugee: ISIS Wouldn’t Exist Under Saddam

A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Syria waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria on June 29, 2014.
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Syria waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria on June 29, 2014. Reuters

"It is my worst nightmare that an extremist group like the Islamic State has support in Iraq"

When people ask me how I feel about the latest events in Iraq, I tell them I feel sad. All these people—both Americans and Iraqis—have died since 2003 for nothing. As the Islamic State insurgency unfolds, I’m mourning not just those who have died over the past decade, but for a country that I haven’t been able to recognize for a very long time.

I grew up in Baghdad in a middle-class family. My father served in the Iraqi Air Force and traveled often internationally; my mother was a math teacher; my siblings all attended college. I graduated from the most prestigious high school in Baghdad before getting my degree at pharmacy school.

I grew up reading Superman and Batman comics, playing with Legos, and swimming at the pools of the fancy clubs where my parents were members. I was 12 during the first Gulf War in 1990. And until then, my childhood was uneventful: I was a happy kid.

Until 1990, I never heard a mosque call for prayer. I almost never saw a woman covering her hair with a hijab. My mom wore make-up, skirts, blouses with shoulder pads, and Bermuda shorts.

Since moving to Los Angeles in 2009, I’ve realized that most Americans don’t understand that Iraq used to be a Westernized, secular country. From the 1930s to the 1980s, Iraq’s neighbors used to look to it as the example. The country had an excellent education system, great healthcare, and Iraq was rich—not the richest, but rich.

Of course, Iraq is not like this today.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait, 24 years ago last month, the United States destroyed most of Iraq’s infrastructure during the Persian Gulf War. Bridges were bombed, along with power stations, railroads, dams, and oil refineries.

I remember that we would turn on the faucet, and barely any water would come out. In order to take showers, we had to rely on water tanks on the roof, which supplied extra water to our home. The water would come out boiling hot because it had been sitting in the sun. We also had limited electricity—which remains a problem, even 20 years later. Sleeping was difficult. You would wake up, sweating, in the middle of the night.

In 1990, an embargo was imposed, which prohibited Iraq from exporting oil. Iraqis suddenly found themselves poor. People’s values changed after 1990, too. Robberies increased. If you parked your car by the street—even for just three minutes—you risked your hubcaps being stolen.

Neither of the United States wars changed life in Iraq the way the U.S. government had intended.

I think the United States wanted Iraqis to revolt against Saddam Hussein and depose him. That wasn’t going to happen.

The notion of democracy is foreign to the Arab world. Although the West saw the “Arab Spring” protests as movements for democracy, they were really uprisings against various dictators, which are not the same thing. What we know is that for countless generations, we’ve lived in a society of hierarchy. It’s not about individualism or personal freedoms. It’s about following your father, your family, and your tribe. There’s no culture of respecting different opinions.

So, when Iraqis were given their freedom, instead of turning to democracy, they, like many other in the region, turned to religion—and religious leaders for guidance, and political advice.

Shiites voted for Shiite candidates. Sunnis voted for Sunnis. The Shiites came to power because they were the majority.

What’s happening in Iraq today is merely a continuation of the failure of democracy. And a failure of the United States to understand the psyche of Iraqis.

The people who might have been able to change Iraq—the educated, the artists, the moderates—began leaving in 1990, mostly illegally, after the embargo was imposed and their comfortable lifestyles came to an end.

In 2003, Saddam Hussein fell and the floodgates opened up, with even more leaving the country for good at a time when they were most needed. Until that year, I was barred from traveling along with other pharmacists, doctors, and certain professionals.

I wanted to leave, but what would I do? Where would I go? Only a handful of countries even allowed travel on an Iraqi passport. My parents and siblings fled to Syria, and later to Jordan. I stayed in Baghdad.

With my friends and family gone, I felt very isolated and alone. It also became unsafe to move around—even to do simple things like go to a restaurant or to the market.

In 2009, I managed to come to the U.S. as a refugee, and I was happy to leave Iraq behind. But even though I’d given up on my country, I had hope that things would not get as bad as they have today. It is my worst nightmare that an extremist group like the Islamic State has support in Iraq and, though it pains me to say this, the aftermath of the U.S. invasions has brought us to this point.

I despised Saddam, but I don’t think an extremist group like the Islamic State would exist under his rule. Even if Saddam had gone crazy and killed a bunch of people, it wouldn’t be anywhere near the number of people who have died since he was overthrown. I see a civil war coming, and an Iraq divided into states.

So as I read the news on CNN Arabic and the BBC while pacing around the house, I feel as if I’m experiencing a death in the family. I’m going through the stages of grief—denial, anger, depression. Lately, I’ve even tried to avoid reading the news at all.

Sometimes, I watch old YouTube videos that show the way Iraq used to be. The Iraq I loved and was proud of—the country I lived in before 1990—doesn’t exist anymore. And I don’t see that changing in my lifetime.

Saif Al-Azzawi lives in Los Angeles. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

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