As the eyes of the world turn to Baghdad, a few Northeast Georgia residents see the growing concerns in Iraq through different lenses.
Sunni militants on Monday captured Tal Afar, a “strategic city” near the Syrian border. It is one of several cities in northern Iraq captured within the last week by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, who served in the Iraq War and is a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, called the reports “heartbreaking for those of us who served over there, seeing the country slip back into what is headed toward a civil war.”
Lt. Col. Kevin Jarrard, the commandant at Riverside Military Academy, served in Iraq twice in regions with opposing sectarian majorities. The first tour placed him in southeastern Iraq on the Iranian border, a predominantly Shia area. On his second tour, Jarrard landed in northwestern Anbar province with mostly Sunni Muslims. From his time working with Iraqis, he said the protection of religious freedom is paramount.
“The average Iraqi, I think, would want to be just left alone, to live in peace,” Jarrard said. “With the right kind of government in place, I think history has demonstrated that it is possible for people of different religious persuasions to live in peace. But when you have extremists on both sides who are suggesting ‘convert or die,’ that is a situation that cannot be peacefully reconciled unless there’s a change in ideology.”
Since the full exit of U.S. troops in the country in December 2011, most of the Iraqis with whom Jarrard worked have been murdered.
“It certainly grieves me to see such brave patriots murdered at the hands of folks who are purportedly freedom fighters,” he said.
When a Status of Forces Agreement could not be reached in 2011, University of North Georgia history and journalism professor Ron Martz said the U.S. lost its influence in the country.
“That lack of a Status of Forces Agreement that was amenable to both the Iraqis and the U.S. was a clear indication that they did not want any further help and did not want us there,” he said.
As troops pulled out of Iraq, support for the Iraqi governmental infrastructure, Jarrard said, left as well.
“When that decision was made to precipitously depart from Iraq, it was like leaving a cake half-baked,” he said. “We did not continue to train and advise the Iraqi security forces and that certainly contributed to the situation that we see now.”
Martz, who in 2003 was a military-embedded reporter, has kept in touch with many of the soldiers with whom he was stationed over the last decade.
“A lot of them are really disappointed to see the way things have turned out here,” he said. “But I don’t think a lot of them would be ready to go back and try to assist again.”
On Monday, President Barack Obama announced 275 troops would be moved to Iraq to protect the American Embassy in Baghdad and other U.S. assets. The embassy in Baghdad is the largest U.S. Embassy in the world.
“That’s a very significant presence,” Jarrard said, “and I’m certain (the president) feels the need to protect and defend those American personnel should the Iraqi government fail to be able to halt the (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) offensive.”
Collins said he is not in favor of doing “surgical airstrikes,” but said opening up channels of discussion with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and imposing economic sanctions on Iraq’s neighbors are two foreseeable U.S. options.
“I think shutting down bank accounts of some folks in the Middle East who are funding and supporting ISIS is a good first step, but we’ve also got to make sure Iran is not influencing Maliki to become partisan in his work in continuing to divide the country and continuing to throw it further into civil war,” Collins said.
Both Martz and Jarrard said the influence of Iraq’s neighbors — Turkey and Iran — will be key as the situation progresses.
“I think that the bigger question rather than just a civil war in Iraq is what that is going to do in terms of destabilizing the region,” Martz said. “Turkey has interests there now (and) Iran has interests there now, in terms of trying to ensure that ISIS does not bleed over into their borders. It’s something that concerns them, and I think what you’re going to see is the U.S. working with Iran to a certain degree to try and ensure that ISIS is somehow neutralized.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.