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U.S. Military Operations and Religious Literacy in Iraq: Then, Now, and Moving Forward

Updated: Feb 2

November 2018 | Kendra Poole


The final panel of this year’s Religion, Law & Diplomacy Conference––entitled “From Iraqi Freedom to Inherent Resolve: U.S. Military Operations and Religious Literacy”––brought together Colonel Michael D. Sullivan, Imam Dr. Ibrahim Kazerooni, and Dr. Nussaibah Younis, all experts on Iraq in their respective fields.


The three panelists presented radically different reflections on the initial U.S. occupation, on the 2011 decision to disengage, and on what should be done to improve the situation today.

“It’s always great to hear a variety of perspectives on an issue that has dominated U.S. foreign policy and discourse for so long,” remarked first-year MALD Brett Northfield. “So rarely do we get to hear from a peace-building perspective, a military perspective, and a religious perspective all in the same panel, at the same time.”


In his opening remarks, Imam Kazerooni, currently Imam at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, drew a hard line: “United States presence in Iraq from 2003 up to now is nothing more than a colonial, occupying power... The United States has no right––and had no right––to be in Iraq. Period.”


Imam Kazerooni encouraged conference attendees to “come out of the mindset of manifest destiny,” the notion that the U.S. has the right to interfere wherever and whenever, and to instead scrutinize Iraq’s sectarian conflicts as symptomatic of the invasion. From his perspective, much of the country’s religious divisions arose in response to actions taken by the occupying powers.

Dr. Nussaibah Younis, an expert on Iraqi politics and a Senior Adviser for the European Institute of Peace, also addressed the origins of Iraq’s sectarianism, whilst presenting a contrasting viewpoint. She stated that, “the U.S. is very often blamed by Iraqis and some international scholars, for supposedly introducing sectarianism into Iraq, where it didn’t exist before."


Dr. Younis explained that the governing council (initially established as an advisory council) portioned out leadership positions between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. She further continued, “that kind of fundamental power-sharing structure ended up being translated into the Iraqi government structures such that (till) today we have a division of posts.” According to Dr. Younis, this equitable representation was a necessary step taken by the U.S. and other occupying powers as the ethno-sectarian divisions were in fact “very much alive just under the surface.”


“Iraqis love to say that sectarianism doesn’t exist in Iraq,” she said. “In 2006, in the middle of a sectarian civil war, Iraqis were telling me that sectarianism didn’t exist. It’s part of the pride of the culture. It’s part of the narrative. There’s a shame in acknowledging it’s there.”


Dr. Younis cautioned diplomats against buying into this narrative about the genesis and existence of sectarianism. “It’s very important that we don’t drink the Kool-Aid on this one,” she said.

When the panel opened for questions, Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou, a Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at Fletcher, commented on sectarianism as it relates to Iraq’s wider religious communities.


“The only two communities that we hear about are Sunni and Shia… and that language, which is reflexively used by everybody as part of the conversation, completely eliminates the history and the steady, slow elimination of the extraordinarily rich religious pluralism that was once Iraq”, Dr. Prodromou said. She asked how the history of religious pluralism––and the oft-ignored religious minorities of the country–– could be better incorporated into the discussion and ultimately into the solution. She said she believes the answer lies in healing the deep-seated trauma underneath many, if not all ethno-sectarian identities.


“Everybody feels like a victim, and there is still so much unprocessed trauma that there isn’t yet the capacity to step out of your own victimhood for long enough to recognize the pain and trauma of the other,” Dr. Younis said.


What, then, is the role of the U.S. military? Col. Sullivan, an Assistant Professor in the Department of War and Conflict Studies at the National Defense University, said, “The way forward, I believe, from a military perspective… is really focusing on a holistic security sector reform program.”


Col. Sullivan, who is also a Fletcher alum, reflected on lessons learned during his five deployments to Iraq. “The United States military does not get it right. We don’t get it right a lot,” he acknowledged. “But what I will say… I believe that we are, in many instances, a learning organization and try and learn from our mistakes.” Col. Sullivan expressed that humility and empathy are key to helping the U.S. military operations better understand the Iraqi culture and religious and ethnic identities.


Dr. Younis and Col. Sullivan both emphasized the damaging nature of President Barack Obama’s disengagement from Iraq in 2011. Col. Sullivan said, “as soon as we left in 2011, the very next day, the Prime Minister issued an arrest warrant against the Sunni Vice President. He waited until the Americans left to do that.” “There was a very deliberate decision made to wash our hands off the responsibility, to wash our hands off the very clear moves that were being made towards a new conflict in the country,” said Dr. Younis on disengagement. “And it’s Iraqis who have suffered. And Iraqis who asked the United States to come back and help.”


Imam Kazerooni, in contrast, did not identify U.S. presence as contributing to greater security and stability in Iraq. “No attempt for conflict resolution or anything else is going to succeed in Iraq… unless we address the issue of occupation first and foremost,” he said. “So long as the United States reserves the right to willingly enter Iraq and does whatever it wants and to get off with no questions, I don’t think Iraq is going to see a day of peace.”


After the panel, Dr. Younis reflected on the conversation with her fellow panelists, indirectly responding to Imam Kazerooni’s assertion that the U.S. should not, and does not, have an active role in constructing Iraq’s future. She commented, “I think the U.S. hasn’t done enough, clearly, to communicate to Iraqi constituents the role that it has played in the last few years since 2014.” She added, “It’s been an unequivocally constructive and important role…the fact that that hasn’t been widely recognized in Iraq speaks to a massive public diplomacy problem that the United States has.”


Col. Sullivan found the panel a constructive impetus for furthering the international conversation. “I truly appreciated hearing the different perspectives on the panel,” he said. “Now I have more questions that I want to go back to do research, and I think realizing that there’s more out there to learn is really the key to any sort of knowledge.”


Panelists and attendees agreed that the tone of civility was a welcome one in this era of discordant politics. “It was refreshing to be at a panel where people openly disagreed with one another but where it didn’t affect the quality of the presentations,” said conference attendee Leah Schulz, a second-year MALD student. Conference organizers were similarly pleased with the many questions raised and explored during the panel. “All you can do is gather smart people who you want to hear from,” said conference organizer Madeleine Herr. “Even when you have four amazing intellectuals, you try to tell them what you want to hear, and they’re going to tell you what they think is important to the topic… naturally you’re going to get not exactly what you expected, but it’s better than that.”