Christiane Amanpour: This Might Be 'The End of Iraq as We Know It'

Monday, June 16, 2014

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters stand to attention in the grounds of their camp in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq on June 14, 2014. (SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty)

The world is facing a nightmare scenario in Iraq and across the Middle East, according to veteran journalist Christiane Amanpour, chief international correspondent for CNN, and Kenneth Pollack, a former former CIA intelligence analyst.

The situation in Iraq is looking grim as Sunni militants make new gains on the ground. Last week, militants seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and then moved south capturing Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. There have been some reports that the group is committing mass murder.

Government and Shiite forces allied on the ground north of Baghdad are trying to prevent the militants from pushing further south. The town of Tal Afar has also fallen into the hands of the forces of ISIS or ISISL, which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Iraq and the Levant and refers to the more ancient territory of Syrian and eastern Lebanon.

On Sunday, two U.S. Navy ships and the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush arrived in the Persian Gulf. But on Friday, President Obama emphasized that the U.S. will not send any troops back into combat in Iraq, although he has asked his national security team to prepare other options to support Iraqi security forces.

"Iraq's leaders have to demonstrate a willingness to make hard decisions and compromises on behalf of the Iraqi people in order to bring the country together," President Obama said. "In that effort, they will have the support of the United States and our friends and our allies."

Today, Pollack, who has served on the National Security Council and is now at the Brookings Institution, and Amanpour weigh in on the conflict spreading across the Middle East. 

According to Amanpour, the big question hanging over Iraq right now is whether ISIS will be able to capture Baghdad in the same way it seized Mosul and Tikrit. While this could be more difficult—Baghdad has as many as 9 million inhabitants and will be heavily guarded, unlike Mosul and other cities taken by ISIS—it is clear that vast change is coming to Iraq even if ISIS does not capture the nation's capital.

"This is very possibly the end of Iraq as we know it," says Amanpour. "There will be a de facto partition—the Kurds in the north, ISIS controlled territory to the west of that, including Al Anbar, the famous Sunni heartland, and then a Shiite big state down from Baghdad to the south encompassing all of the majority Shiite areas and the Shiite shrine cities."

Amanpour says that many believe it will be "incredibly difficult" to retake the territory that ISIS has already captured. She adds that the current crisis was birthed years ago and has evolved over time.

"When ISIS's precursor—the Al Qaeda in Iraq—had really wrecked Iraq, particularly the west and the place was in a massive civil war, President Bush and General Petraeus ordered a surge and defeated these people, but it was also political," she says. "When President Obama pulled the U.S. troops out, this started to go to hell again in a handbasket."

The Syrian Equation 

When American troops withdrew from Iraq, violence began to erupt in the nation which, when coupled with chaos in Syria, allowed ISIS to grow and move easily across the border to plan and regroup.

"Syria has been left to fester, and therefore these Islamic jihadi groups have been allowed to do their planning and do their training moving in and out and across borders," says Amanpour.

Amanpour says that it is critically important to try and hold off ISIS—she says that doing so will require the U.S. to bolster Iraqi forces, or establish a tactical alliance between Iran and the United States. Additionally, recreating a government of national unity in Iraq is a top and urgent priority to fend off ISIS, Amanpour says. 

"Maliki cannot do it on his own—he is sectarian, authoritarian, and he is viewed really, as a Shiite dictator right now," she says. 

Some contend that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not want residual U.S. forces left behind, and the U.S. government did not force the issue, even though it was likely a third party mediator needed to remain because of the historical tensions between groups in Iraq.

"Whatever happened, they did not create what most military commanders said had to happen, and that was to keep a residual U.S. force in there to train, and to keep training, equipping and planning with Iraqi forces," she says. "When it withdrew its forces, [the U.S.] didn't have any leverage, and then therefore over the last several years Maliki has been able to simply shut out the Sunnis and create a Shiite dominated leadership."

Now, the Iraqis must somehow come together to hold the line against ISIS and create a coalition to push them back.

"Many believe that is going to be incredibly difficult and that what's going to happen is harden, de facto partition lines," says Amanpour. "But people have to understand that unless the swamp in Syria is drained, this is not going to have a chance in hell of succeeding in Iraq—any attempt to push back what's happened in Iraq will simply keep getting bolstered in Syria. This is a very, very dangerous world-shattering situation. I'm not going to say that it's global World War III, but in that area—in Iraq, Syria, and possibly shattering the stability of Lebanon and other surrounding countries, this could be a very, very dangerous thing.

Amanpour says that what's happening right now is reminiscent of 1994, when the Taliban swept Afghanistan, which then gave way to Al Qaeda. 

"These people—ISIS—are even worse than Al Qaeda," she says. "They have splintered off from Al Qaeda because they don't think Al Qaeda is radical and brutal enough. This is a very dramatic situation, and a lot of it has been enabled by letting Syria fester like this over these last few years."

U.S. Teaming Up With Iran?

Kenneth Pollack says that it might be necessary for Iran and the United States to team up to tackle ISIS, however ironic that notion may be.

"At the end of the day, Iraq is in extremely dire straights," he says. "We need to get the situation stabilized, and that's going to require getting any help that we possibly can get. And, at the end of the day, we and the Iranians do have some similar interests in Iraq—we both want it stabilized."

Pollack says that given the way Iraq was handled, the U.S. has essentially turned Iran into a regional player.

"We now have to recognize the reality is that as we pulled back, as we disengaged, they moved in," he says. "In 2005, the militias were largely in charge in Baghdad, and the United States was trying desperately to find someone that wouldn't be too divisive. We hit upon Nouri al-Maliki...He was a mid-level official in one of the smaller Shiite parties, and the assumption was that this guy wasn't threatening to anyone, and that's why he got to be prime minister."

Prime Minister Maliki was able to hold his own during the beginning of his tenure, says Pollack. But around 2008, he began to "rise above his narrow Shiite background," says Pollack.

"He became something of a national unifying figure," he says. "After that, he then kind of devolved back to his origins—he's someone who's deeply suspicious of Sunnis."

After American troops left Iraq, Pollack says that Prime Minister Maliki began acting in a more paranoid fashion and began going after his rivals. 

"That kind of split the Iraq that he had helped to start to unify," says Pollack. "But when you've got a security vacuum, when you've got a kind of nasty sectarian dictator, which unfortunately is what Nouri al-Maliki has become, it becomes almost impossible to keep a country like this together."

Though Pollack supported an invasion in Iraq in 2003, he says he did not support the invasion President George W. Bush launched—back then, he says that he warned the invasion was "going to create as many problems as it solved."

"I said it was going to push the country into chaos, warlordism, and civil war—I specifically said we should not be doing it under those circumstances," he says. "Well, that's what we did."


Christiane Amanpour and Kenneth Pollack


T.J. Raphael

Comments [8]

Greg Slater from Earth

Ken Pollack has been voted the most useless piece of cr-- in the Multiverse for the last 12 years straight, yet Hockenberry still sucks up to him. Pollack argued in 2002 that Iraq had nukes, and he enthusiastically supported an attack and coup in Iraq. Now he enthusiastically supports attacking Iran. But notice for all his love of insane invasions, the gutless coward never volunteers to fight at the front. This is typical of his ilk. When the Hock-man timidly reminded him of his support for this ruinous attack on Iraq, he said, ' No, I supported an invasion, not the one we got." In other words he supported an invasion in which everthing happened exactly as it had in his infantile wet dreams of power. But, as the hackneyed line goes, 'No wet dream of empire survives first contact with the enemy.' No one who supports war as absolutely necesary but who refuses to fight in the war he supports, but instead serves as a REMF, writing opinion pieces from a safe place and making money off war, should ever be listened to. Such a person is totally worthless. That's just totally obvious. Yet the Hock-man's career as wise consultant, as those of all the other useless neocons, not only survived his disgrace, but the man even failed upward. Hock-man now seeks Pollack's 'advice' on what to do with the mess he helped engineer. Pollack learns nothing. He risks nothing. He is totally ignorant. A fool. A coward. Shame. Shame. Shame. On Pollack. On Hockenberry. On the entire utterly useless American media. Sorry for having to speak the ugly truth in John's fantasy land, but someone has to.

Jun. 16 2014 10:42 PM

@Lynn from Salt Lake City

"It is Obama that is proximally responsible for this mess..."

Only if you believe in the 'tar baby' theory of foreign policy. Invading Iraq was wrong. Disbanding the army and the breaking up the Ba-ath Party was wrong. The current government favors one sectarian group over and at the expense of another sectarian group. All of these blunder belong to Bush and his national security team. Iraq was, in fact, better run by their dictator than we have managed. And leaving Saddam in power would not have resulted in 4,500+ American servicemen dead or drained $4T plus from the Treasury.

But you want to blame Obama for the current state of affairs?!? It may be true that the mess that Bush and the U.S. created might have been handled better but how much better if WE hadn't created the mess in the first place.

You are deranged.

Jun. 16 2014 03:11 PM
Lynn from Salt Lake City

The interviewer was pretty ham-handed in the Amanpour interview. At least twice he tried to shift the blame for this horrible mess onto Bush. But both times she deflected his bias and pointed out that Almaliki was pretty good until President Obama made a slight effort to keep American troops there and then ran away. It is Obama that is proximally responsible for this mess, both for doing what Bush warned against, pulling out all troops, and then dilly-dallying and totally failing to intervene in Syria. Obama is a foreign policy disaster, and with interviewers like John trying to keep us distracted from that, he will never be held accountable and have to actually do what we hired him to do.

Jun. 16 2014 02:39 PM
Tony from Texas

I don't know how long its gonna take the United States to realize and us as a people to understand that democracy is a form of government is not meant for all societies. we cannot continue to try to build democratic forms of government to the ends of a gun as a means to get there. It is only through the people of those countries that desire democracy rising up and making it happen themselves that it stays and holds as a form of government. We have seen this in so many places that we have tried to nation build ourselves.

Jun. 16 2014 01:04 PM
Jerrold Richards from Lyle, Washington

As I understand it, the British Empire liked putting together globs of real estate filled with groups who hated each other, the idea being that such jurisdictions would be easier to rule on the "divide and conquer" theory. Thus Iraq.

The super-corporations of today prefer to deal with smaller and less powerful governments. Thus the present chopping up of Iraq. I expect we'll see the same happen to larger countries such as the Untied States eventually.

To the extent that the United States government is influenced and/or controlled by the super-corporations, what at first glance appears to be a couple decades of catastrophic blundering costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars makes good sense.

Jun. 16 2014 12:58 PM

@Paul Taslimi
"Holy cow! What a complete abrogation of sense. Can we please put out for resumes for the following positions: NSA head, CIA head and any other agency imparted with the responsibility to know about countries we spend 3 trillion and close to 5000 in blood setting up for democracy. What a total insult to all the young women and men who lost their lives."

The total insult was sending them there in the first place. It was wrong of us to buy Bush's lies and destroy the infrastructure that held the place together. You can be sure that Malaki was warned about putting too much power in Shi'ite backers and ignoring Sunni needs. We were foolish is thinking that taking out Saddam would lead to anything other than civil war and death.

Jun. 16 2014 11:45 AM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.


Jun. 16 2014 11:30 AM
Paul Taslimi from Medford, MA

We got news of all this turmoil roughly 3 weeks ago. The response of the US has been remarkably in sync with "New Reports". I was under the false impression apparently that the NSA was monitoring everything under the sun. It now appears that the NSA was monitoring everything under the sun in the US only! This is truly pathetic. This represents an amazing bit of "head under the sand" syndrome. Could we not inform Malaki in time with all of our intelligence devices? Holy cow! What a complete abrogation of sense. Can we please put out for resumes for the following positions: NSA head, CIA head and any other agency imparted with the responsibility to know about countries we spend 3 trillion and close to 5000 in blood setting up for democracy. What a total insult to all the young women and men who lost their lives.

Jun. 16 2014 10:59 AM

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