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Kurdish Leader Says Brussels Attacks Show Need For Unity Against ISIS

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 22/03/2016 Akbar Shahid Ahmed
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WASHINGTON -- Tuesday's Islamic State-claimed attack in Brussels shows that the fight against militant extremism will be waged around the world, according to a top Iraqi Kurdish official familiar with her government's successful efforts to counter ISIS.

"As we fight in our home country, fighting terrorism, we see that thousands of kilometers away from our country, terrorism works and fights," Pakhshan Zangana, the secretary-general of Kurdistan's High Council of Women's Affairs, told The Huffington Post Tuesday morning.

Zangana's post grants her minister-level status in the Kurdistan Regional Government, which manages the Kurds' semi-autonomous region in Iraq. She also was part of the legendary Kurdish peshmerga forces during the Kurds' decades-long struggle against former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Her point today shows that some of the most effective forces on the ground against ISIS know that neutralizing the group will entail more than support for ground offensives in Iraq and Syria.

It serves as an important caveat to what critics of the Obama administration repeatedly have said they would do to stop ISIS: "Arm the Kurds!" Despite the fact that the U.S. is already arming the Kurds, presidential hopefuls have been presenting that as their unique new anti-ISIS approach for months. Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) picked up the refrain just hours after news broke of the Brussels attacks. (He also called for ramping up government targeting of Muslims within the U.S., suggesting he's not sure how he feels about followers of the religion -- the vast majority of Iraq's Kurds are Sunni Muslims, mainstream and moderate members of the same sect of Islam that ISIS claims to represent.)

Watch Zangana's full comments on the Brussels attacks in the video above.

Iraqi Kurdistan has received significant support in terms of equipment and airstrikes from the U.S. and other foreign partners and is grateful for it, Zangana indicated Tuesday. ISIS began advancing toward the region in the summer of 2014. After the Kurds had already lost significant territory and appeared at risk of losing their capital in August 2014, the U.S., France, the U.K., Germany and other nations began sending them support to combat the brutal extremist group.

As a result, the Kurds have retaken nearly all their territory -- all the while caring for over a million refugees from other parts of their own region, as well as Iraq and Syria, whose arrival unleashed its own set of political and ethnic troubles.

"Kurdistan is fighting directly ISIS, and it fights ISIS on behalf of all of the international community," she told The Huffington Post, speaking through a translator provided by the Iraqi Kurdish office here.

Zangana reiterated her government's request to receive U.S. arms directly, rather than after they are first sent to the central Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Congressional allies of the Kurds tried to make that possible last year following Kurdish complaints of delays but failed to do in the face of Obama administration opposition. The government held that it was illegal to transfer weapons to a body other than a sovereign state and that doing so would threaten the unity of Iraq. 

Iraqi Kurdistan also needs additional U.S. help because it's experiencing a painful economic crisis that could hinder the anti-ISIS effort, Zangana said. The region has been forced to hold up salaries of many employees because of falling oil prices and financial mismanagement.

Despite that focus on Kurdistan, though, she underscored that ISIS must be fought worldwide.

"Terrorism does not target a specific place or region," Zangana said. "They can reach almost everywhere. That's why all of us, we have to make a front, an international front, to confront terrorism. We have to be all together in this fight."

Terror experts say attacks in Europe show that ISIS's opponents must focus on its recruits in the West too, rather than simply trying to contain and slowly degrade its self-styled "caliphate" in the Middle East through airstrikes and supplies to local forces like Kurds in Iraq and Syria.

That means engaging Muslim communities in countries like France, Belgium and others to understand how alienation among second-generation Muslims and others has led to radicalization. It also involves anticipating new tactics terrorists might develop and tackling the appeal of ISIS's ideology, a point to which Zangana alluded.

Zangana and Florin Gorgis, director general of the Iraqi Kurdish Women's Affairs Council, spoke with The Huffington Post during a brief visit to D.C.

More clips from our interview with them will be published this week, covering topics such as efforts to save Yazidi women captured by ISIS and how to tackle gender-based violence -- acts like female genital mutilation and honor killings, which have a long history in Kurdistan -- in a society threatened by the vehemently sexist terror group.

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