Reclaiming, reconstructing and reconciling

The Middle East Institute and Johns Hopkins’ SAIS co-hosted a panel on the future Iraq on Tuesday, moderated by peacefare’s own Daniel Serwer. He was joined by Lukman Faily, Iraqi ambassador to the US, and Abbas Kadhim, a fellow at SAIS. At the heart of the discussion was the ongoing campaign to counter ISIS, but also the long road needed to restore order in Iraq in the longer term. The panel was particularly timely in light of the upcoming visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi to Washington, set to take place next week.

Ambassador Faily said Iraq post 2003 has been moving away from dictatorship and towards democratic governance. This vision remains alive today, although Iraqis have paid a heavy price in its implementation, which changes over time. While there have been many shortcomings in practice, Iraqis increasingly have understood that they are mutually interdependent: the threat of ISIS in particular has tempered Kurdish independence ambitions (if only temporarily) and has convinced Shia politicians to share power.

Returned recently from a trip to Baghdad, the ambassador was relatively optimistic. In spite of the threat from ISIS, Baghdad and some other cities now feel safer than in a long time. There are fewer car bombs and assassinations. Removal of concrete barriers has freed up traffic. People are discussing post-ISIS scenarios. Elites are increasingly frustrated with the polarized political environment. There is a generally positive view of the US role in the fight against ISIS, though Iraqis find it hard to understand the geopolitical and domestic constraints on US policy making. The Tikrit operation has been a rollercoaster, featuring mainly Iraqi forces helped by Iranians.

Faily pointed to five key parameters for the current government. First is the need for inclusive governance. Abadi is serious about achieving decentralization. He is also serious about seeking and accepting cabinet-level decisions, sometimes to the frustration of partners who want a faster decision making process.

Second is the restructuring of Iraqi the military and the Ministry of Interior. This includes a more hands-on approach in reaching out to the tribes, and a serious effort to create a truly multi-sectarian National Guard. While reform is starting, patience is needed, as logistical and financial problems will make reform slower than desirable.

The third parameter is fixing the economy, where the government is still playing catch-up. Corruption remains a pervasive problem. It goes deep, requiring changes in political culture, structure and process. Decentralization reforms should help to address this problem.

Fourth, the government is engaged in reconciliation. Faily pointed to Abadi’s recent visit to Erbil and argued that the government is taking steps to build confidence between Iraqi communities. Part of this effort is to recognize that human rights abuses have taken place. In this respect, Abadi has reached out to international organizations to help the government in mapping abuses so that it will be able to deal with them more effectively. At the same time, the conflict in Iraq has been messy. Some casualties, however regrettable, would have to be expected.

Finally, the Iraqi government is determined to improve its relationship with foreign countries. The key message is that Baghdad is a reliable partner in the fight against ISIS both at home and ultimately throughout the region. Relations with Iran are neighborly, but the government does not act on orders from Tehran. Iraq is ready and willing to cooperate with other powers in the region.

Following the ambassador’s remarks, Kadhim suggested a way forward for Iraq based on three Rs: reclaiming, reconstruction and reconciliation. Physically reclaiming Iraqi sovereign territory is the sine qua non of rebuilding Iraq. ISIS is at least partly a problem of ungoverned spaces in Iraq. There is therefore a need for a comprehensive approach to the ISIS campaign, without which they will simply reappear once the campaign has ended. Such an approach involves significant military reform, some of which is already taking place.

Second, Iraqi society needs to engage in a reconstruction effort. Comparable in scope to the American Reconstruction Era, this effort should include rebuilding political, economic and social infrastructure, with the aim of rebuilding the Iraqi nation in a way that will ensure it does not again fall prey to destructive internal forces. In order to achieve this, Iraq will need international support and expertise.

Hand in hand with the reconstruction effort, Iraq will also need to engage in reconciliation. Kadhim noted that this traditionally has been achieved through providing political posts to members of marginalized groups. However, in post-2003 Iraq, this approach often produced politicians that unable to serve their constituents, thereby contributing to undermining rather than supporting the political transition. Instead, Kadhim suggested that there must be an effort to achieve popular reconciliation. This would involve reaching out to marginalized communities regardless of sect or ethnicity. Key to this effort is a genuine decentralization, which would deny divisive and demagogic leaders the destructive role they have hitherto played.

Serwer pointed out that an absolute requisite for reconciliation is acknowledgment of harm done. Only by such acknowledgement can the parties of a conflict escape the spiral of violence. Such acknowledgements are hard work however, and are unfortunately not yet forthcoming in the Iraqi conflict.

Faily emphasized the need to strike a balance between justice and peace in Iraq. While justice is critical in the tribal society of Iraq, there is also a need for the nation to move forward in order to achieve stability and peace. Finding an acceptable formula that balances these two considerations is inherently difficult.

On a more positive note, Faily argued that Iraqi society has moved beyond the deep structural problems that are facing many of the other countries in the region. Policymakers should not to view Iraq only through the prism of Iran. Iraq is a young nation that wants, and needs, good relations with the rest of the world, both in its neighborhood and beyond.

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