WASHINGTON – Rep. Brian Higgins has returned from a weeklong fact-finding mission to Iraq, Turkey and Kuwait that left him convinced that only the Iraqis can solve the problems that have left huge swaths of the country in the control of the terrorist Islamic State.
The Buffalo Democrat, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, traveled to the troubled region with two Democratic senators and four other Democratic members of the House. In Baghdad, the lawmakers met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, as well as the nation’s defense minister, national security adviser and speaker of the Parliament.
In an interview Monday, Higgins said that those meetings proved that deep sectarian problems remain in Iraq between its Sunni and Shiite Muslim populations and that the Shiite-led government must give Sunni leaders a genuine role in government in order for the country to become unified.
“No amount of American money or troops is going to change that,” Higgins said.
The United States has been launching airstrikes against forces of the self-proclaimed Islamic State forces, also known as ISIS or ISIL, for months. Asked whether the U.S. strategy was working, Higgins said: “It’s working, but most people believe that the question is, where will the ground troops come from?”
Saying that Iraq must develop a strong army that bridges the sectarian divide in order to combat the Islamic State, Higgins added: “I am not saying that the U.S. should supply the ground troops there.”
Iraqis can find a model for a less sectarian government and military force in their own semiautonomous Kurdistan region, Higgins said. There, the government has been open to all minorities, and the local militia, the peshmerga, is an effective fighting force.
The congressional delegation also visited Erbil, in Kurdistan, where the lawmakers met with Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, as well as the foreign minister.
In the Turkish capital of Ankara, the lawmakers met Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, along with the Turkish minister of foreign affairs – a session that Higgins said amounted to “an exchange of pleasantries.”
Higgins said he was disappointed with the Turkish government’s failure to stop foreign fighters from crossing its border to join Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq.
“They don’t view the Islamic State as the existential threat that America and everyone else does in that region,” Higgins said of the Turkish leaders.
In addition, Higgins and his colleagues visited a United Nations refugee camp near Gaziantep, Turkey. Noting that Turkey now harbors 2 million refugees from the civil war in Syria, Higgins said: “How do you settle that many refugees? How do you feed and clothe them? It’s a heartbreaking situation.”
Higgins also met with Syrian opposition forces in Turkey. And on a brief stopover in Kuwait, Higgins and his colleagues went to the Grand Mosque in Kuwait City, where a terrorist attack had claimed 27 lives only days earlier.