In Op-Ed, Jeffrey Argues For U.S. To Do More In Iraq

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The death toll in Iraq this month is nearly 700 and rising — the result of a wave of bombings and open clashes between government-led Iraqi security forces and Sunni extremists with ties to al Qaida. Steve Inskeep talks to former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, who says the U.S. should be doing more in Iraq.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States is considering what to do about deepening violence in Iraq. Car bombings and other attacks have killed hundreds of people just since the start of this year. The violence is blamed on extremist groups and on Iraqi Sunni Muslims who feel excluded by the government. Yesterday, reporter Prashant Rao told us the U.S. is offering the Shia-led government advice, and more.

PRASHANT RAO: It's already supplied quite a few Hellfire missiles. It's providing unarmed ScanEagle reconnaissance drones, and of course the U.S. has also said that it's going to be supplying a large number of small arms, M4s and M16s, rifles, that kind of thing, to Iraq.

INSKEEP: A former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, argues the United States should be doing even more for the Iraqi forces.

JAMES JEFFREY: What they need is air support and probably some training of some of their people, because urban warfare, as we found in 2004 in Fallujah, is something that you don't do overnight.

INSKEEP: Is this conflict America's problem?

JEFFREY: Yes, it is. It is America's problem for several reasons. First of all, like it or not, the Iraq of today is a partner and a quasi-ally of the United States. Secondly, an al-Qaida force anywhere in the Middle East in ungoverned territory is a danger both to the stability of the region and to the United States. Thirdly, moving into an area, Fallujah, the biggest and most intense fighting for the U.S. ground forces since the Vietnam War, this is the kind of thing that sends chills down the spines of everybody in the Middle East when they fear that America will not respond to something as dramatic as this.

INSKEEP: Do you think that the Obama administration has made this a priority, a sufficient priority?

JEFFREY: I think they have made it a priority. I think that they're going to make it more of a priority. I think that they are a little bit concerned about getting bogged down, just as they were with Syria on the chemical weapons issue, on any kind of engagement in the Middle East because they feel that it's a third rail. It's radioactive with the American people.

True. American polls show that Americans are unhappy with the Middle East. They're unhappy with engagement. But for my mind, they're unhappy about large scale commitments and thousands of Americans dying, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. That's not what we're talking about here. It's not what we were talking about with strikes against Syria.

INSKEEP: Are there efforts underway to more directly advise the Iraqi military, to get Americans involved in some way more directly with the Iraqis on the ground?

JEFFREY: There are both reports of training in Jordan, and from what I've heard, from what I know, there are such efforts both being planned, being evaluated and perhaps already underway.

INSKEEP: When you say Jordan, just to state the obvious here, Iraq has forbidden U.S. troops to be on its soil, at least under terms that the United States can accept, and so they just go across the border and do the training there?

JEFFREY: Exactly. Technically, Iraq didn't forbid the troops. They said, you're welcome to have a training presence. We just won't grant them legal immunities, but that is a sine qua non for us and that's how it all came down in the fall of 2011.

INSKEEP: Isn't this something that has been tried before? When you talk about training Iraqi troops in Jordan, I immediately think of 2005, 2006, 2007, when the United States was trying to do that on a large scale.

JEFFREY: We were training police there. There's a whole story behind that and I'm pretty confident that training troops, if we use U.S. government personnel, either uniformed or non-uniformed...

INSKEEP: Like CIA people...

JEFFREY: U.S. government personnel, uniformed or non-uniformed, I'm pretty sure that they'll get the job done.

INSKEEP: And do you think that they actually have the knowledge that is needed in this situation?

JEFFREY: If there's one thing tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of Americans have learned in the last 12 years, it's how to do low intensity warfare in the broader Middle East. We're experts at it.

INSKEEP: Last thing. Are you worried at all about the United States being dragged back into this conflict?

JEFFREY: I'm worried very much about the United States being so worried about getting dragged into another conflict like Iraq, Vietnam or Afghanistan, not doing anything, however minor, however reasonable, however low cost, however low risk. That's what we saw with the Syrian CW, that's what I was afraid we were seeing with Iraq, but I think the administration's got over it and they're jumping in now.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks for coming by.

JEFFREY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: James Jeffrey is a former United States ambassador to Iraq.

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