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Crisis in Iraq: Three Questions for Professor Benjamin Jensen

Dr. Benjamin Jensen

Almost three years after the end of the Iraq war, Iraq is again in crisis. Its government has lost control of large parts of the country; sectarian violence is on the rise, and jihadism is resurgent. Scholar-in-Residence Benjamin Jensen, an expert on international security, explains the situation in Iraq and outlines next steps.

Q: A Sunni militant offensive has overrun large parts of northern Iraq. What are the goals of the group that now calls itself "Islamic State" and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? 

A: The group appears intent on establishing a Caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. From this stronghold they will spread their ideology across the region. It is a revolutionary regime intent on changing the political boundaries and regimes of the greater Middle East. Reports are starting to emerge that the group is seizing materials linked to weapons of mass destruction, including uranium used for academic research from the University of Mosul and for former chemical weapons factories. While the group is highly unlikely to build either a chemical or a nuclear device in the near-term, the seizures signal that the Islamic State is either intent on establishing a strategic deterrent or sponsoring large-scale terror attacks. They are risk takers and we have likely not seen their last gamble. 

Q: The crisis has put pressure on Iraqi leader Nuri al-Maliki as he seeks a third term as prime minister. What should be done to resolve the political crisis and improve Sunni-Shiite relations?  

A: Al-Maliki is as responsible for the current political and security crisis as the Islamic State. Rather than ruling Iraq as an inclusive regime for all Iraqis, he has systematically alienated moderate Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. His regime has crowded out moderates and created a climate ripe for extremism and sectarian civil war. It is unlikely the crisis will be resolved as long as he is prime minister. The question is who replaces him and how Iraqis can do it in a manner that doesn’t undermine their legitimacy of their governing institutions. 

Q: Iraq has received support -- including equipment, intelligence and advisers -- from the United States, Russia, and Iran to battle the militant offensive. What role should the United States play in this conflict? 

A: U.S. security architecture in the Middle East has evolved since the end of World War II from experiments with collective defense arrangements to playing the role of the external guarantor of regional stability (i.e., securing trade routes for the flow of oil to Europe and Asia, protecting favorable regimes, and ensuring no single state like Iran dominates the region) and seeking to transform the region through democracy promotion and economic reform. Major events tend to alter strategy. For example, the Iranian Revolution in 1979 led to the end of the Central Treaty Organization, an attempt to have a NATO for the Middle East. The sectarian struggle currently gripping the Middle East is likely another moment to pause and reconsider the larger security architecture in the region. Before taking any action in Iraq, the United States needs a clear strategy for the region that connects issues from Syria to Iranian nuclear proliferation. No American official has articulated anything resembling a comprehensive strategy for the region at present. Acting in the absence of an overarching strategic logic translated into clear, feasible policy goals is a recipe for disaster. 

Follow Dr. Jensen on Twitter at @BenjamJensen. To arrange an interview, call 202-885-5943.