Although victory over ISIS has been declared in Iraq, American involvement there will remain necessary for years to come, according to Sen. Joni Ernst, because the United States cannot win the peace for the Middle East nation on its own.

“This is going to take a long time,” the first-term Republican senator said. “We’ve been there 15 years. We have a long ways to go yet. The United States must remain a partner of choice for Iraq as it develops into a young democracy.”

So until the United States is confident in the capacity and ability of Iraqi security forces to defend their country, a U.S. military presence will remain necessary to protect American interests, the Iraq War veteran told the United States Institute of Peace on Thursday in Washington, D.C.

“But they need to take ownership. They have to want it more than we want it.” Ernst said during a question-and-answer session following an 11-minute address to the institute.

So the United States, through diplomatic efforts and working with international partners and agencies such as the Institute of Peace, must continue to foster that desire among the Iraqi people and provide training and guidance.

“We cannot do it for them,” she said. “If we’re doing it for them, we won’t see a lasting peace.”

Ernst, who served as an Iowa Army National Guard company commander in Kuwait and Iraq, said the institute extended an invitation to speak because of her membership on the Senate Armed Services Committee and her service in Iraq.

“It’s a natural fit for me and something that ties in so nicely with the Armed Services Committee as well” Ernst said.

Congress created the institute as an independent agency to work toward peace in global conflict zones. It identifies ways to counter extremism and ways to improve the rule of law after violent conflicts, according to its website.

In her Thursday speech, Ernst acknowledged a “weariness” with the U.S. effort in the region — even among her Senate colleagues.

“People ask when we are getting out of Iraq. When are we going to get out of Afghanistan? We’ve been there too long. What gains are we seeing?” she said.

Even though Iowans are still deployed in the region, Ernst can’t remember the last time someone called her office to talk about Iraq. It’s been replaced by concerns with tariffs, trade, NATO, the European Union and Putin.

“I get that,” she said, adding she is concerned that if the general public doesn’t see Iraq in the news, “they will just forget about what’s going on and how important it is for us to continue with this train-advise-assist mission that is a very stabilizing effort, an empowering effort for the Iraqi forces.

“Now is not the right time to (pull out), especially when you have Iran engaging in the area, Russians engaging in the area and Syria is still a mess with Bashar Assad,” Ernst said later. “We can’t just let go and expect that all will be well and the United States will not be another target sometime in the future.”

Ernst also rejected the school of thought that just because Iran also seeks to defeat ISIS that its interests are aligned with those of the United States.

“I categorically reject that premise, as we have seen Iran’s true regional goals in Syria and through their support for terrorist organizations that have killed U.S. and Allied personnel across the Middle East,” said Ernst, who chairs the Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

“We need to look no further than the constant Iranian call of ‘death to America’ to realize that we are not and will never be strategically aligned with the ayatollah regime.”

A key to limiting Iran’s influence in Iraq and the region is a free and prosperous Iraq, she said. “That is reason enough for the United States to continue countering these efforts.”

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