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In Iraq, Sectarian Militias Threaten To Distract From Fight Against ISIS


Derek Harvey is a retired U.S. Army colonel and intelligence expert on Iraq. He advised General David Petraus during the American fight against sectarian militias. He joins us now in studio. Thank you for coming in.

DEREK HARVEY: Glad to be here.

CORNISH: So first can you give us your reaction to what you saw this weekend? How fragile is state government control in Iraq?

HARVEY: Well, I think the situation in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, should give us pause because I think this is the beginning of possibly the Balkanization of the state. The state leadership institutions are being eviscerated by competing centers of power.

CORNISH: But you have the Shia cleric who called these protesters, Muqtada al-Sadr. He's calling essentially in support of the plan by the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, right? He wants this new cabinet of technocrats of nonpartisan officials. So aren't they - aren't these interests aligned?

HARVEY: On the surface, they are aligned. But there's a real power struggle underway within the government as well as within the different parties that represent ethnic sectarian and other interests across the country. In point of fact, there is a fight for power and influence within the Shia groups, and I would call it an inter-Shia fight right now.

CORNISH: So help us understand what that means 'cause you've recently said that Iraq's prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is toast.

HARVEY: Well, recent events and the inability to move things forward politically has created a situation where Prime Minister Abadi has really no power. He has little influence and no authority. Although he holds the position of the prime minister, he does not have any deep bench or reservoir of strength with which to push things through despite the fact that he seems to have the support of the United States government as well as Tehran.

CORNISH: So then what about Sadr here, right? He is helping push these protesters. This is escalating these tensions. And you know, he's someone who fought against the U.S. How concerned is the U.S. about the growth of his political power?

HARVEY: I think we're concerned not just about the growth of the Sadrist trend and their influence over the government, but I think we should be particularly concerned about the breakdown of the institutional capacity of the state and the devolution of power to the regions and to non-state groups. And that is going to directly challenge our ability to shape a fight against the Islamic State.

In point of fact, everyone else in that country is focused not on the Islamic State but over their own short-term political interests - fighting for power, influence, access to money and jobs.

CORNISH: So what does that mean for the U.S. and it's a long game, especially as it's trying to fight ISIS?

HARVEY: Well, I think the United States has an interest in a stable, unified Iraq if we can make it happen. I'm not sure that we've been committed to that objective in that we've used all the tools in our toolbox to help the Iraqis move forward. We've been narrowly focused on a counterterrorism and a counter-ISIS strategy I think with a great deal of neglected to real opportunities we've had in both Iraq and Syria to make a difference.

The whole reason region is on fire, and you know, we are going to have to really exerted considerably more leadership and put more skin in the game. I'm not talking about massive troop deployments. I'm talking about political, economic and diplomatic efforts that are serious. And I don't think that we've really had that to this point in time.

CORNISH: So to remind us, what is the U.S. commitment in terms of level of troops and resources we're putting into Iraq right now?

HARVEY: Well, the reporting is that there's about 5,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq. And there are a larger number of contractors and other government agency officials bringing the number probably closer to 9,500 or 10,000 Americans.

But it's not just what's in Iraq. It's in the area the area. A significant force presence in Kuwait, in Qatar, in Jordan and in Turkey are enabling the operations in Iraq.

CORNISH: That was Derek Harvey. He's a longtime U.S. military intelligence adviser on Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.