Iraqi VP in Washington, Demands Arming, Training of Sunnis
Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi demanded that the American administration begin arming his country’s Sunnis.
On a visit to Washington, he hoped that the administration of US President Donald Trump would fulfill its pledges in combating increasing Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Osama al-Nujaifi is one of Iraq's three vice presidents, and his brother heads a prominent Iraqi defense faction that was trained by Turkey. Both have been represented in Washington by the same lobbyist employed last year by Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump's first national security adviser. In February, Trump fired Flynn, who is now under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Al-Nujaifi met Monday with a team of State Department and other officials, kicking off a week of efforts to bolster the influence of Iraq's Sunni Muslims — and shore up his power base ahead of national elections next year.
His requests for equipment and training face resistance: While Trump has tweeted warnings about Iran's expanding control over Iraq, Americans officials are not yet providing military aid directly to Iraq's Sunni fighters.
In an interview with The Associated Press, al-Nujaifi recalled the US military support for armed groups during the "Sunni Awakening" (“Sahwa”) against al-Qaeda in Iraq a decade ago and said Sunni forces once again "need the ground support of the United States" as the ISIS terror group is driven from Iraqi territory.
He said the US and Iraq also need to press for the disarmament of Shi’ite militias, many of which are supported by Iran.
In a speech Tuesday at the US Institute of Peace, al-Nujaifi argued that "more attention should be paid to the strengthening of military capabilities" of communities wrested from the ISIS’ control, like majority Sunni Mosul. He said that "may require sending more American military forces."
A significant ramp-up in direct US aid to Iraq's Sunni armed groups — let alone American troops — is not likely, analysts say.
"I presume his pleas will be met with collective eye-rolling," said Michael Knights, a Mideast analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Two years of lobbying in Washington did not win much support for al-Nujaifi's brother, Atheel. After fleeing Mosul when ISIS captured the city in 2014, Atheel turned to Turkey's government for training and other aid for his armed forces.
US support remained minimal, Knights said.
In 2015 and again last year, Atheel lobbied Congress and other US officials for a long list of weapons and other aid to equip 10,000 fighters. His sole lobbyist last year was Washington lawyer Robert Kelley, who also worked in 2016 as general counsel for Flynn's consulting firm.
Flynn Intel Group was hired by a Turkish business client seeking to develop a criminal case against Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose extradition from the US has been sought by Turkey's government.
Kelley also helped set up Osama al-Nujaifi's meetings this week with Trump administration officials.
Last October, Kelley registered Flynn Intel Group with Congress for its lobbying on behalf of the Turkish-owned company, Inovo BV. But in March, Flynn's firm abruptly filed instead as a foreign agent with the Justice Department, acknowledging that its work likely aided Turkey's government. That filing is now under scrutiny as part of Mueller's probe.