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From 2008 to 2010, I went on 12 different working missions to Iraq, where I worked with local leaders and members of parliament on democracy and governance issues. Each morning, I would look south across the desert as the sun slowly rose over the rooftops of the city of Erbil. To the north, I could hear the Muslim call to prayer drift across the city and out to the mountains; in the south, I could see a Christian cross brightly lit above a church in my neighborhood on the outskirts of town. Beyond this serene cityscape, though, lay the chaos of war.
To the Kurdish population of Erbil, war was not a new phenomenon. The Peshmerga - Kurdistan's fighting force - fought for decades against Saddam Hussein. Their experience made them a valuable ally during the U.S. presence in Iraq, serving as a consistent force that stood for stability and fought and died to protect American troops and personnel. Ultimately, they deferred their dreams of independence for a chance to be part of a democratic and pluralistic Iraq.
Unfortunately, the Kurdish communities that I worked with never saw the inclusive, unified, and representative state that they were promised. Former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's rule was characterized by repressive and exclusionary policies. Whether suspicious of Kurdish territorial ambitions or jealous of Kurdish wealth, Maliki was quick to alienate and agitate his supposed "allies" within Iraq's divided government.
Maliki's policies have fed the disaffection in the Sunni community that has fueled the rise of ISIS. Maliki's suspicion of the Kurds have left them without the resources to care for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have headed to safety in the hills of Kurdistan, and his diversion of military equipment to sectarian militias has left the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army dangerously exposed and in immediate need of resupply.
The reality is that the United States desperately needs reliable allies on the ground like the Peshmerga in Iraq to stem the onslaught of the barbarous forces of ISIL. We have learned from hard and bitter experience the limits to what the unilateral exercise of American power can do in the Middle East. The Kurds can be the allies we need, but they can also be more: a stabilizing foundation for the revived Iraqi state, and an excellent model of ethno religious coexistence.
Consider the fact that internally displaced minorities like the Yazidi are flocking to Kurdistan first and foremost for shelter. The region's reputation for not only stability but coexistence is well-deserved; over 95 percent of Iraq's Syrian refugees are already living in the region. Due to investment from Turkey and other powers, the Kurds have created a thriving economy. This model of a community that is as prosperous as it is interdependent is essential to the future of Iraq.
Ultimately, the U.S. policy of intervention in northern Iraq over the past week is not about transforming the Middle East a la the Bush-era's neoconservative policies. Instead, our actions - both humanitarian and militarily - must focus on being decisive in order to turn back the tide of ISIL's advance and strengthen the position of our allies and partners, the Kurds perhaps the most capable among them. Peshmerga troops pushing back against ISIL is the first step in the long but essential road ahead to an inclusive, unified, and representative Iraq.
Scott Bates is president of the Center for National Policy. He lives in Stonington.