Rebuilding Iraq

28 April, 2016 26-04-2016 09:33PM ET

Even if Iraq survives its current turbulence, the battered nation will struggle to peacefully rebuild, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraqi firefighters extinguish a fire as civilians gather following a suicide car bomb attack in Baghdad (photo: AP)

US President Barack Obama and Defence Secretary Ashton Carter seem to believe that the real problem in Iraq is not the failure of its political system, but the fact that not enough aid has been delivered to Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s government.

Last week, while on a tour of the region, the two US officials pressed Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf nations to step up efforts to defeat the Islamic State (IS) terror group and to help rebuild war-torn Iraq.

The call on the oil- and gas-rich Gulf nations for economic and political support for Iraq comes as the country faces its worst financial and economic crisis in memory and remains mired in political turmoil.

The appeal for increased Gulf contributions to the war against IS also comes amid signs that the war against IS militants is making some headway and that the US-backed campaign to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, appears to be going better than was previously realised.

Of course, there are other perspectives through which to look at the remarks by Obama and Carter, especially the Iranian-Saudi feud, but the war against IS remains essential to a US president, who now says that the defeat of the group is “my number one priority”.

This explains why the call on the Gulf nations for action to aid Iraq in the post-IS era has been coming in loud and clear.

It is widely acknowledged that the day after the defeat of IS there should be a plan for the stabilisation of the Sunni cities retaken from the group in order to avoid a relapse and make the military victory meaningful.

It obviously makes good sense for Obama to seek pledges from the rich US allies, whom Washington believes have done little to support Iraq in the war, to contribute to the civilian side of the effort following the IS defeat.

Washington believes that the Arab Sunni Muslim nations can play a key role in helping to re-stitch the Sunni provinces into the fabric of the rest of Iraq.

But what is missing in this approach is not only a concrete plan to jumpstart reconstruction in Iraq following the IS uprooting, but also a comprehensive strategy for the rebuilding of the battered country.

Iraq should be allowed to restart from scratch with overall reconstruction on the ruins of the destruction inflicted by the US-led invasion in 2003, and the mismanagement of the dysfunctional system run by the oligarchies it installed in power.

Naturally, this is not what Obama and Carter meant when they asked the rich Gulf nations to increase their aid to Iraq. To them, this is to help with the reconstruction of the Sunni cities that have been won back from IS militants but left in near shambles.

However, that is not enough, and it could even be counter-productive. For Iraq to survive as a coherent nation, a two-pronged strategy is needed to re-launch a transition that will pave the way for democratic and communal consolidation.

Iraqis should take a leading role in managing the new transition and creating a new system that balances the state’s interests with competing communal interests to secure legitimacy for the new process.

In this regard, Iraq will need creative and bold ideas to solve its current mess. An effective response will require an understanding of the drivers and dynamics of the Iraqi political crisis.

This understanding should be sufficiently nuanced to recognise that most of Iraq’s problems are caused by the ethno-sectarian quota system that was created by the US occupation authority after the 2003 invasion.

This system introduced an oligarchy that has produced misrule, corruption, violence, insurgency, terrorism, communal disputes, power struggles and government inefficiency.

A new political and social contract should therefore be forged in line with the new reality. It should be based on a new “historic compromise” that would allow all Iraqi communities to make concessions for the sake of a viable and effective unitary state. A road map for a new transition should concentrate on overhauling the flawed power-sharing system.

This should include rewriting the existing constitution and dissolving both the parliament and the government as a way of leading up to establishing a new political order that can guarantee stability and create a solid democratic system.

In order to achieve this goal, a national salvation government should be formed that will exclude the wretched ruling elites who will keep blocking reform in order to maintain the status quo that serves their vested interests and agendas.

A new political structure should also resolve the problem of the increasing number of non-state actors, including communal militias, armed groups, tribes and clergy, who have been playing an increasingly active role in governance.

Iraq’s economic and financial systems, wrecked by years of inefficiency and the pillaging of state wealth by politically well-connected fat cats, will have to be overhauled.

A new strategic approach on how to manage national resources will be needed, along with a new agreement on how to administer the state budget to avoid waste and plunder.

The international community also has a key role to play in the new transition. Since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country and the ouster of former president Saddam Hussein’s regime, the international powers and ambitious neighbours have been engaged in Iraq above all to maintain either their geostrategic or national interests, without attempting to play a constructive role in the rebuilding of the country.

While these narrow-minded and self-oriented policies towards Iraq are expected to continue, a new approach that transcends providing financial aid for post-conflict pacification and chooses a strategy for rebuilding the failed country should be put in place.

This strategy should be different from what has been tried before, as Iraq’s reconstruction efforts following the US-led invasion were disastrous.

In nine years of occupation, and despite $60 billion of US money, the enterprise turned into a series of tremendous blunders that turned Iraq into a failed state. Despite some $500 billion in oil money being earned by the country, Iraq continued to decay from within.

The country remains deeply divided and steeped in corruption and mismanagement. Political chaos has paralysed the government and the parliament. On the humanitarian level, recent UN reports suggest that some 8.2 million Iraqis, or one third of the population, are in need of aid, while some six million are refugees or internally displaced persons.

One good idea is that the international community should be engaged in a three-tier effort to help resettle and rebuild Iraq while still allowing Iraqis to drive the ultimate outcome.

First, the international community should aid in state-building. While managing a successful transitional process remains the duty of Iraqis, the world can assist in providing expertise and support in building institutional capacity and creating Iraqi “builders” who will take responsibility for reconstructing the entire system.

Key areas in international donor efforts should be fighting corruption, reforming the judiciary, supporting human rights and promoting respect for the law.

Practically speaking, preventing shady transactions, money trafficking and money laundering resulting from corruption in Iraq should be part and parcel of the international community’s efforts in rebuilding Iraq.

Second, it is for the international community to help in peace-building and preventing the renewal of conflicts or violence. Two areas remain major concerns: the Iraqi security forces and the non-state paramilitary actors including the Kurdish Peshmergas, Shia militias and Sunni armed groups.

International support remains vital for a successful peace-building effort that includes creating an environment supportive of the reconciliation of opponents and the maintenance of a durable peace with the ultimate goal of integrating the various actors into a single national security mechanism.

Third is for the international community to help in a costly and long-term reconstruction programme. Iraq needs to go beyond conventional post-conflict reconstruction and choose an unconventional approach that takes into consideration its complexities.

Before ramping up its assistance, the world should see real political improvements in Baghdad, where a new functional system should be put in place. Rebuilding Iraq will take more than bricks, cement and steel. It needs a project that replaces anger and despair with a self-sustaining machine for producing hope.

In addition to a new social and political contract between Iraqis for a functioning political structure, a regional framework for reintegrating Iraq into the region should be worked out.

Before embarking on an international rebuilding programme, Iraq may be required to co-operate fully with the international community in order to construct a more inclusive system before being reintegrated into the regional community.