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Iraq can’t wait years to defeat Islamic State, says Ambassador

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight, we are launching a series of conversations about the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and what should be done about it. We’re calling it No End in Sight.

Earlier today, State Department spokesman John Kirby said it could take at least three to five years to overcome the group in Iraq, and insisted that the Obama administration does have a strategy for dealing with the extremist organization.

Kirby was pushing back against characterizations of President Obama’s statement on Monday, when he told journalists that the U.S. was reassessing how to confront ISIS.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But we’re reviewing a range of plans for how we might do that, essentially accelerating the number of Iraqi forces that are properly trained and equipped and have a focused strategy and good leadership.

And when a finalized plan is presented to me by the Pentagon, then I will share it with the American people. It’s not — we don’t yet have a complete strategy, because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joining me to discuss the fight against the Islamic State is Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily.

Mr. Ambassador, thank you for being with us.

LUKMAN FAILY, Ambassador, Iraq: Thank you for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how is your government doing right now in the fight against the Islamic State? And who — do they have the upper hand?

LUKMAN FAILY: We have taken initiative on a number of fronts.

We have been able to retake provinces Salahuddin and Diyala, which was under the — partially under the control of ISIS, Da’esh. Now we’re having the fight in Anbar, and we will in the near future focus on Nineveh province as well to retake Mosul.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So would you say one side or the other has the upper hand?

LUKMAN FAILY: Listen, if you compare it to where we were last year, when Mosul fell away, it was — or taken by ISIS — it was important for us to take the initiative to rebuild our infrastructure, army, people, politics.

And, as a result, a new government was formed, a focus of a teamwork approach by all, making sure that ISIS — defeating ISIS is the key theme that everybody has to focus on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We just heard the president, President Obama, yesterday saying that there is no complete strategy yet for dealing with ISIS in Iraq, because he said it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqi as well.

Do you agree with him that it is — what is holding it up are commitments on the part of your government?

LUKMAN FAILY: Judy, this is our fight. This is our existential fight.

We will appreciate support from all others, specifically by the United States. It has been a game-changer over the last year. However, the fight is for our existential existence. Our fight — the fight is against ISIS as an entity, as an identity, and as a threat to our culture, our heritage and certainly for the minorities who it’s been able to exterminate or try to enslave and others.

To us, the timeline is now. We need to focus now. We need to deal with it. There has to be a sense of urgency across all. We appreciate there has to be international support. We will welcome that. What we’re saying is that we will not wait for anybody to have this fight. We will do this fight. We want support from others, but we can’t accommodate any long-term plan for this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re not saying that your government can do it on its own, without U.S. help, are you?

LUKMAN FAILY: Nor can anybody do it on their own. That’s a key issue.

We cannot accommodate for it. It’s not an Iraqi fight alone, Judy. This is a regional fight with a global implication.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the responsibility of the U.S. in terms of military support, U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq?

LUKMAN FAILY: I don’t want to call it responsibility.

All I will say is that the whole world has a threat. The coalition, which the United States has led, we appreciate, we thank. We think it’s important that we’re all on the same page, but we have no — or let’s think of it this way. The international plan for Syria is still not there. In Iraq, they have a partner. We have to work with each other.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the comment by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter the other day that Iraqi troops lacked the will to fight in Ramadi?

LUKMAN FAILY: Only yesterday, a significant portion of Baiji was retaken. This has been a formidable fight we had.

Every day, we pay dearly in our young ones’ lives and sweat and resources, limited resources of the state. I think it’s unfair to say that it’s an issue of the will. We have that. However, we need to get better coordination.

Last year was a setback for us. We had to restructure our military and our politics and so on. We’re a new democracy. We’re a nascent democracy. So I think people have to look at it in proportion.

However, let’s put it this way. Whoever talks about the will, not having the will, the United States was in Iraq since 2003. So who is responsible? I think we are all responsible for this problem. We have to take ownership of it, but move away from the blame and focus moving forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re saying the U.S. shares part of the blame.

LUKMAN FAILY: Everybody, I think, in that sense, has a responsibility for it.

Politics in the region now, unfortunately, after the Arab spring have become more self-centered politics. We need to work with each other, polarization, address the Sunni, Shia and other — this is not an Iraqi problem.

Let me give you a simple example. If you have a threat in Paris or Belgium or others, is this a Shia-Sunni problem? No, it’s a global phenomenon. We need to address those. ISIS is one manifestation. It’s an evil manifestation.

We need to work with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you just quickly about the role of Iran.

As you know, many in the U.S. are concerned about the heavier role of Iran in your country, that the reliance on Iran exacerbates, makes worse the sectarian divisions in your country. Is your government relying too much on Iran in the fight against ISIS?

LUKMAN FAILY: We have — as I said, as we started, I said we have an existential threat here, a clear, present danger.

For that means we need help from others. Iran has a national security issue of its own because of the border, because of the religious shrines of Iraq, which is considered as an important heritage for the Shia communities and so on. So they have a stake.

They have been able to provide unconditional support. If you have a problem, if you have a fire in your house, would you want — don’t want your neighbors to give you a hand? That’s what we have.

And whatever politics we need to get in order, we need to do that. We certainly — the sovereignty of the country is key issue for us, but the threat is common, and among other neighbors as well. Does Iran have a sense of urgency others don’t have? Maybe. And that’s an issue where other countries have to say, how urgent do they support Iraq?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Lukman Faily, the ambassador of Iraq to the United States, we thank you very much for talking with us.

LUKMAN FAILY: Thank you for having me here.

Iraq can’t wait years to defeat Islamic State, says Ambassador