Iraqi Sunnis seek to influence Congress

Iraqi Sunnis seek to influence Congress
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A coalition of prominent Iraqi exiles who say Sunnis are being persecuted by Iraq’s government is setting up a lobbying office in Washington, D.C., next month.

The office, due to open Jan. 16, is intended to give Iraqi Sunnis a direct channel to lobby Congress on receiving U.S. military assistance and other issues.

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Iraqi Sunnis are particularly worried about ensuring they have U.S. support if a sectarian war erupts.

“We are opening the office in Washington, D.C., for the Arab Sunni representatives to convey the true Arab Sunni street voice to the United States and to the policymakers in the U.S.,” Sheikh Khamis Khanjar, one of the exiles, told The Hill in a recent interview.

The office could come into conflict with the Obama administration, which has opposed efforts to go around Baghdad’s government. It has argued that bolstering Iraq’s fragile central government is the only way to avoid the breakup of Iraq. 

However, the exiles say Baghdad — under influence from Iran and their Shiite militia proxies in Iraq — has been restricting the flow of U.S. military equipment designated for Sunni tribal forces, as well as their recruitment and training. 

Although the U.S. is trying to recreate a Sunni uprising against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Baghdad has capped recruitment of those forces to 9,000. 

There are currently about 6,100 Sunni tribal fighters who have been trained, according to Pentagon statistics.  

The U.S. has designated millions of dollars in equipment for Sunni tribal forces, but some Sunnis have had to buy weapons from the Iraqi army and the Shiite militia, Khanjar said. 

In addition, Baghdad has recently fired hundreds of Sunni military officers for not taking orders from Iran-backed Shiite militias, and has kicked out, arrested or kidnapped out thousands of Sunni police officers in northern Iraq, according to one of the exiles. 

“The Shia militias completely control the political scene in Iraq and the military,” Khanjar said. “The prime minister is unable to issue orders to his military staff without approval from the Shia militias.

“Today the Shia militia are receiving U.S.-made weapons that were given to the Iraqi military. In the meantime, they are also raising banners that say ‘Death to America’ while using the American-issued weapons, and they are even accusing the U.S. of working with Daesh,” he added, using another name for ISIS.

Khanjar also raised Russian influence in Iraq. He said the Shiite militias have been increasing the pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi to enter into an alliance with Russia to defeat ISIS.

Shiite militias are already meeting with Russian officers in the Green Zone in Baghdad, he said, and are even talking about their ability to replace Abadi with someone loyal to the Shiite militias and Iranian Quds Force Gen. Qasem Soleimani. 

Khanjar said the D.C. office will deliver two messages: That the majority of Sunnis are against terrorism and ISIS, and that the “Shia militia are just as dangerous and just as brutal” as ISIS.

Rep. Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoycePoll: House GOP candidate leads in California swing district Overnight Defense: Congress reaches deal preventing shutdown | Pentagon poised to be funded on time for first time in years | House GOP rejects effort to get Putin summit documents GOP rejects effort to force release of documents about private Trump-Putin meeting MORE (R-Calif.), the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, told reporters last week that he has met with Sunni tribal leaders as recently as this month to talk about not getting enough supplies.  

“It's pretty obvious to me that the intent on the part of Baghdad is to marginalize other factions and to increase the power of the Shia,” he said. “If we are going to defer constantly to Baghdad, we are essentially going to be deferring constantly to Iran.”

Royce said he hopes to pressure the administration to begin directly arming the Sunnis, or else pass legislation that would authorize the president to do so, similar to legislation the committee recently passed to arm the Kurds. 

The administration, however, is not interested in changing its policy of direct engagement with Baghdad.

“Everything we do here, of course, in Iraq ... recognizes that this is a sovereign country and that is one government in Baghdad,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said last week while visiting the Kurdish officials in northern Iraq. 

Khanjar said with more U.S. support, the Sunnis could swiftly defeat ISIS, since they are the ones who live in the cities where ISIS has moved into and can swiftly identify ISIS fighters. 

Without more support, he said the Shiites would continue to brutalize Sunnis in Iraq, who would then in turn allow ISIS to stay in their areas as protection against the Shiite militias. 

“How can we encourage other cities that are currently under Daesh,” Khanjar said. 

“How can we encourage them to fight and rise up against Daesh when they see that the end result might be the Shia militias coming in and raping the women, tearing down their houses, stealing everything, killing people, kidnapping kids?” he said.