Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Harvard symposium: Growing up in Contemporary Iraq

Dr. Kanan Makiya, the author, Dr. Joseph Sassoon and Sayed Hossein Qazwini
Recently I had the pleasure to attend the second annual symposium on Iraq sponsored by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.  As with the prior symposium held in March 2016, this event, organized by former Center Director, Roger Owen, and Dr. Muhamed Almaliky, Associate of Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, offered a heady stream of presentations. The theme, “Growing up in Contemporary Iraq,” focused on Iraqi youth and the impact of recent sociopolitical demographic on this oft ignored demographic.

The Harvard symposium raised the following question: Why has youth as a category of analysis been largely ignored in the politics of the Middle East?  In Iraq, and in most of the MENA region nation-states, youth constitute 70% of the population under the age of 30.  Unfortunately, the many authoritarian regimes which control most MENA states fear youth. 

The Arab Spring only reinforced this fear, leading to the ouster of leaders in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In Syria, the political graffiti and peaceful demonstrations initiated by youth led to the start of a vicious civil war whose end is still not in sight.  Indeed, in March 2016, Iraqi youth were instrumental in the resignation of many corrupt ministers in the government.

After welcoming remarks by Roger Owen and Muhamed Almaliky, I began the day with my presentation, “How should we envision a Post-Dacish Iraq?”  I argued that answering this question involved a deeper understanding of 5 “critical junctures” which Iraq has faced over the past 50 years.  In other words, to ask about “post Dacish Iraq” assumes we know what Iraq was like prior to the rise of the IS when it seized one-third of Iraqi territory in 2014.

Iraq’s current challenges began with the 1979 coup in which Saddam Husayn seized power from Muhammad Hasan al-Bakr and imposed what the late Falih Abd al-Jabbar so aptly called the “family-party state (dawlat hizb al-usra). 

Followed by the September 1980 invasion of Iran, in response to continued verbal attacks on Saddam’s regime by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iraq entered a period of rising sectarian tensions.  “Persians” became associated with Iraq’s majority Shi a population whose loyalty was increasingly disparaged as the war dragged on.

The seizure of Kuwait in August 1990 and the Gulf War of 1991 represented the second critical juncture which was followed by the third, the Intifada of March 1990 which was suppressed by Saddam using helicopter gunships allowed to take to the air by the US.

The brutal United Nations sanctions regime, which lasted from 1991-2003, and caused the collapse of the national economy and education system, constitutes the third critical juncture. Saddam’s so-called “Faith Campaign,” launched under his sidekick, Izzat al-Duri in mid-1993, further strengthened sub-national identities, already weakened by Iraq’s severe economic decline.

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq on the pretext that Saddam’s regime still possessed a substantial arsenal of chemical weapons.  Appointing a sectarian based Iraqi Governing Council in July 200-3 and handing Iraqi politics to a group of sectarian entrepreneurs, or carpetbaggers, who lacked any commitment to building democracy, only undermined Iraqi nationalism still further.

The final critical juncture occurred with the Dacish’s seizure of Mosul and two thirds of Iraqi territory in 2014.  The humiliation of the Iraqi Army in Mosul and Iraq’s north central provinces underscored the corruption and sectarianism of the Iraqi government at the time under the leadership of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The killing of large numbers of Shica troops at Camp Speicher and the formation irregular militias, many of whom were loyal to Iran, only added to the sectarian flavor of Iraqi politics.

Thus to speak of a post-Dacish Iraq has little meaning without consideration of the cumulative effect of a long historical trajectory of events which had serious negative impact on Iraq. The most damaging impact was to erode a sense of “Iraqiness” which crossed the lines of ethnicity and sect.

The key factor I emphasized in all these critical junctures was that they do not prove the hypothesis of a sectarian Iraq.  Quite the opposite is the case. Each decision which produced a serious consequences was made by a small political elite.

Whether the decision by Saddam Husayn and his immediate circle of cronies to invade Iran and later seize Kuwait, or decisions by exogenous forces, such as the George H.W. Bush's administration to expel Iraq from Kuwait in January 1991 and impose UN sanctions, or George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraqi in 2003,or Iran’s efforts to take political advantage of the militias formed in 2014 which it funded and controlled, the domestic populaces were excluded.

In all critical junctures, the Iraqi people had little or no say.  As I noted in my presentation, an important part of the civic education of Iraqi youth is to inculcate them with the understanding that destructive political leadership, not some inherent “flaw,” namely sectarianism, is the cause of the problems Iraqi faces today. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Iraq Reconstruction after the Da'ish: Does the international community realize what's at stake?

A Mosul street, July 2017
In August 1945, much of Europe lay in ruins. The Red Army occupied Eastern Europe and much of Germany.  Fearing that Europe’s instability would play into Soviet hands as it tried to extend its influence westward, the United States made one of the most important foreign policy decisions to date.  The Marshal Plan was credited with reconstructing Europe, preventing the spread of communism and creating a democratic and prosperous Western Europe. In Iraq, also devastated by a war, which began with the Dacish’s seizure of Mosul and one third of its territory.  Will the United States and the Western community step in to recreate a new Marshall Plan for Iraq?

What are the stakes in Iraq if the country can’t rebuild itself?  First, without the necessary funds, Iraq will not be able to find homes for over 2.5 million people displaced from their homes.  Second, the instability which will result from the inability of the Federal Government to rebuild the cities destroyed during the lengthy struggle with the Dacish will play into the hands of neighboring Iran, much as an unstable Europe would have benefited the USSR in post-WWII Germany. 

Finally, the inability to rebuild the homes, infrastructure and education systems of the predominantly Sunni Arab areas of north central Iraq will thwart Iraq’s efforts to make a meaningful transition to democracy.  This in turn will undermine hopes for democratization in other parts of the Arab world by allowing despots to argue that democracy is an alien form of governance.

Talk of the Marshall Plan was widespread after the toppling of Saddam Husayn’s regime in 2003.  Tragically, graft, corruption, lack of proper bidding for contracts and, most important of all, building projects which were inappropriate for Iraqi society and economy which had just emerged from the most punitive sanctions regime in modern history generated very little benefit.  Allowing political actors, many of whom returned from exile in Iran, to assume office, the United States assured that the Iraqi political system would be one based in sectarian identities and corruption and nepotism.

The argument can be raised that the amount of funds available during the implementation of the Marshall Plan during the late 1940s were more plentiful than they are today.  This argument is specious because the global economy is on the rebound and US allies in the European Union and in the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar, are awash with large sovereign wealth funds.

Why would the European states contribute to Iraq’s rebuilding process?  The answer can be posed in one word: migrants?  Despite the internationalist worldview and generous and welcoming policies of many European countries, even Germany – the most receptive state – has tightened its immigration policies.  The right wing populist backlash to immigrants coming from the MENA region and Africa has created serious domestic problems for all European countries, both inside and outside the European Union.

Instability in the Sunni areas of north-central Iraq which the Dacish formerly controlled could entice Turkey to intervene using the need to protect Iraq's Turkmen population in the city of Kirkuk and elsewhere as an excuse.  NATO certainly doesn't want any more conflict with Turkey, a NATO member state, which would certainly be the outcome of its becoming involved in northern Iraq.

Why would Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States agree to invest large amounts of funds in rebuilding Iraq?  This question can be answered in one word: Syria.  Do the Saudis and the Gulf Arabs want to see the same type of failed state and extensive violence and destruction in Iraq as we are witnessing in Syria?  Hardly. 

But isn’t it true that Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states made limited financial pledges to Iraq at the February  8th International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq which was held in Kuwait?  
This is true but the US failed to actively coordinate its strategy at the conference with its NATO, EU and Japanese partners.  Further, this was the first reconstruction conference of its kind.  More can and will be held in the future.  The fact that conference was held in Kuwait was highly significant if we remember the horrors Saddam Husayn visited on Kuwait between the invasion of August 1990 and the expulsion of Iraqi forces in January 1991.  Nevertheless, the conference raised $30 billion of the $88-100 billion Iraq says it requires for rebuilding areas devastated by the war with the Dacish.

To the surprise of many, Iraqis, particularly students have been returning to the city to rebuild the University of Mosul and the city.  That many of these students are not originally from Mosul is all the more impressive.  What this suggests is that the most efficient use of reconstruction funds will need to involve a partnership between Baghdad and local municipalities.

Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi should begin by holding the Iraq equivalent of “town hall” meetings on Iraqi television which would allow those in need of housing, education, health care and other services to suggest how best areas which need reconstruction can be served.  A “bottom up” approach, especially if UNAMI or another international agency can monitor the distribution and expenditure of funds (a process sorely lacking under the US occupation as the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction’s reports so clearly demonstrated). 

Developing a process whereby citizens at the local level become directly involved in the rebuilding process would allow them to circumvent corrupt local officials – many of whom lost all their legitimacy by supporting the Dacish – and inject an sense of empowerment into communities which still feel marginalized and dejected by the trauma they have experienced.

With youth constituting 70% of Iraq’s population, Prime Minister al-Abadi could follow the example of President  Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression.  Roosevelt created organizations to employ youth and young professionals, such as the Farm Service Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Organizations like these could help stimulate a new sense of civic engagement in Iraq following the Dacish’s defeat.  These organizations could rebuild houses and health care clinics, repair school buildings and tutor young children who have no school to attend.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Iraq after the May 2018 Elections: Building Democracy or Becoming an Iranian Satellite?

Who will win the elections for Iraq’s Council of Deputies (national parliament) on May 12th?  Will the current prime minister, Haydar al-Abadi, be returned to office for a full 4 year term or will he be defeated?  Who are his main competitors?  Why is this election so important for the future of building a democratic Iraqi nation-state?

The recent defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and neighboring Syria represents an important step forward.  Among Iraqis, especially in Arab areas of the country, it has created a sense of positive momentum of which Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi has been the beneficiary. The Iraqi Army’s professionalism and non-sectarian behavior during the campaign against the Dacish, especially that shown by its US trained Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), earned the respect of many Sunni Arabs and has worked to tamp down sectarian feeling nationally.
Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi
At the same time, Prime Minister al-Abadi weathered a difficult period this past fall after the ill-fated September 25rd KRG referendum which asked Iraq’s Kurds whether they wanted to leave Iraq and form an independent nation-state.  The referendum, the product of political maneuvering by ex-KRG president, Masoud Barzani, passed by a large margin (although many Kurds chose not to vote) and seemed to pose a major threat to Iraq’s unity.

However, fissures between the two main  Kurdish political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), allowed Federal Government forces to reoccupy territories seized by the KRG’s Pesh Merga forces after they were abandoned by the national army in 2014, following the Dacish seizure of Mosul and other areas of northern Iraq. 
Former KGR president, Masoud Bazani
The loss of these areas, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, deprived the KRG of 30% of its oil revenues.  While precipitating a major crisis with the KRG, Abadi’s popularity also benefited from the return of territories which Arab Iraqis felt had been unlawfully seized by the Pesh Merga in 2014.  Abadi came to be seen as a strong leader who prevented the dissolution of Iraq.

Still, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), or al-Hashad al-Shacbi, formed after the Iraqi Army collapsed in Mosul and the north in June 2014, also benefited from the defeat of the Dacish.  Not only did the 40 odd militias celebrate their victories over terrorist forces, but the 3 most powerful strengthened their ties to Iran.  In effect, the Badr Organization, led by Hadi al-Amiri, a highly popular and known among some Shica as “shaykh al-mujahidin,” the Kata’ib Hizballah (Hizballah Brigades), led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and the League of the Righteous People, led by Qa’is al-Khazzali, have become military and political arms of the Iranian regime in Iraq.

Equally important is the extensive political organization which the PMUs have created, especially in the southern Shica majority provinces of Iraq. Having been able to offer poor youth employment, the PMUs are revered not only for their military prowess (which is not always deserved), but for the economic resources which they have delivered to marginalized Shica communities.  This dual reputation will serve the many PMU candidates well who will run for parliamentary office.
Hashad leaders Qa'is al-Khazzali, Hadi al-Amiri & Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis
The PMUs have benefited from funds obtained from Prime Minister al-Abadi’s office. Because these funds were distributed to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Deputy Head of the PMU coalition, he has been able to build an extensive patronage network. These public monies have reduced the pressure on Iran to fund those militias which support its policies in Iraq. Thus there will be strong pressure during the election campaign, which is now in full swing, to maintain Federal Government funding of the PMUs, thereby attracting votes for PMU candidates from the unemployed and underemployed who rely on PMU largesse.

How does Hayder al-Abadi fare in this political equation?  How can he strengthen his position in the forthcoming national elections?  His best move is to focus on winning the election not only by emphasizing democracy in the abstract, namely individual freedoms, fair elections, and transparent and accountable governance, but by stressing job creation and the rebuilding of Iraqi towns and villages destroyed in the war against the Dacish. In other words, he must emphasize social democracy, which will provide jobs, such as construction work, for large numbers of currently unemployed Shica youth, the main constituency of the PMUs.

What type of a coalition can Abadi build in confronting the PMUs?  He must mobilize four different constituencies to have any hope of winning a full term as Iraqi prime minister.  First, he needs to develop solid support among the secular middle classes, Shica Sunni and Kurd.  He can accomplish this end through promising to fight corruption and nepotism, and offer transparent and accountable governance.  Personal freedoms must also be part of his message.  Above all, he needs to emphasize that he will combat sectarianism in favor of an Iraqi nationalism which is tolerant and inclusive of all Iraq’s diverse religious and ethnic communities.  
Rebuilding the city of Mosul

Second, he must reach out to the poor and unemployed.  Here success at the February 12-14 Kuwait International Conference of Iraq Reconstruction and Development, which seeks to raise $100 billion in international funds for rebuilding regions destroyed in the war against the Dacish, will be critical to this effort.  If Abadi can mobilize resources to rebuild the damaged and destroyed towns and cities, formerly under control of the Dacish, then myriad construction jobs will become available.  

Here the United States can play an important role in encouraging Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states to open their pocketbooks and contribute handsomely to Iraq.  These US allies should also be encouraged to invest in Iraq, thereby earning profits and not just distributing financial largesse.  Saudi Arabia has already reopened its border with Iraq and committed large amounts of funds which it will invest in the Iraqi economy. 

The message here to Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf: a prosperous Iraq will be a bulwark against the rise of new terrorist organizations and Iranian interference in Iraq’s internal affairs. A prosperous Iraq, whose government is cross-ethnic and cross-sect will prevent the rise of Shica sectarianism which Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states see as a threat to their internal security, given the large populations of Shica in the Saudi kingdom and the Arab Gulf states.

In the rebuilding process, Abadi could draw upon the United States’ experience during the Great Depression when the Roosevelt administration's Neal Deal developed the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which put millions of Americans to work developing the national infrastructure, constructing buildings, engaging in reforestation and expanding national parks and contributing to many other areas of the US economy.
Muslim women repairing Christian monastery in Mosul desecrated by IS
Muslim men repairing the monastery
In Iraq, unemployed Shica could work in the north with Sunnis to rebuild communities, schools, hospitals, roads and municipal water and sewer systems.  This idea of Shica and Sunnis working side by side is not a new idea because Iraqi unions during the 1930s through the early 1960s – before they were suppressed by the first Bacth Party regime which came to power in 1963 - were characterized by their multi-ethnic and multi-religious membership.  Indeed, university students from many parts of Iraq have already traveled to Mosul to help the citizens of the city rebuild their famous university, city schools and other municipal institutions.
Lt. General cAbd al-Wahhab al-Sacdi, CTS commander
A third constituency Abadi needs to attract is the security forces.  The CTS, and Federal Police, which fought the Dacish so effectively, are highly professional, having received excellent training from the US army.  As one of the top commanders of the CTS, Lt. General cAbd al-Wahhab al-Sacdi stated, there is “zero tolerance” for sectarianism in his units.  The loyalty of this segment of Iraqi society will be critical to Abadi’s efforts, if reelected, to further professionalizing the Federal Iraqi Army.

The United States military, which played a central role in retraining the Iraqi Army after its rout by the Dacish in 2014, thereby enabling it to defeat the terrorists, needs to remain engaged in  further training and professionalization of the Iraqi armed forces.  An important dimension of this training, which is often overlooked, is that professionalism is indirectly correlated with sectarianism.  A non-sectarian Iraqi Army is key to circumscribing the political and military influence of PMU sectarianism.
Muqtada al-Sadr and Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi
There are two cleavages in Iraqi politics from which the prime minister can benefit.  First, the popular cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, is vociferously anti-Tehran and pro-Arab.  While his Saraya al-Salam brigades haven’t gained as much legitimacy from fighting the Dacish, his long term commitment to Iraq’s poor and the social services his organization has provided to the residents of Sadr City (formerly Revolution City) – the most densely populated quarter of Baghdad – has earned him enormous legitimacy among the Shica poor.

Sadr was angered by Abadi’s efforts to form a coalition with the PMUs earlier this month in an effort to demonstrate that the prime minister does not oppose them and seeks to rule through a broad political coalition.  The outcry among Abadi’s supporters was such that the still born political alliance crumbled in a day as the 3 dominant militias withdrew from Abadi’s al-Nasr (Victory) coalition.

Finally, Abadi must convince the Kurds that they are truly equal citizens in a federated Iraqi nation-state.  The Kurds need to see a sincere effort on Abadi’s part to offer them a role in Iraq which will offset the desire to form an independent nation-state of their own, one which most Kurds now agree isn’t economically viable.  The Kurds fear Iran and their local agents in Iraq especially the “Big 3” PMUs - the Badr Organization, the League of the Righteous People and the Kata'ib Hizballah.  In this sense, the Kurds' “natural political home” is in an Abadi government, especially if he appoints Kurds to a number of important ministries and military positions.

Another cleavage from which Abadi benefits is the hostility large numbers of Iraqi Shica feel towards former prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, whose ultrta-sectyarian policies enabled the Dacish to seize  Mosul and large portions of north central Iraq and to carry out the horrors of the Camp Speicher massacre where 1500 Shica troops were summarily executed by the terrorist organization.  When Maliki has tried to deliver speeches in cities in the south – such as Karbala’ and Basra – he has literally been forced to leave the podium given the anger of the crowd.

Nevertheless, Maliki seeks a comeback.  His strategy is to try and ride the wave of the PMUs should they receive a large number of votes and hence seats in the new Council of Deputies.  This prospect represents a long shot, but Maliki could potentially become the PMU candidate for prime minister in light of the common bond the 3 main PMUs and he share through their ties to and financial support from Tehran.

General cAbd al-Karim Qasim
Not only is Abadi popular for defeating the Dacish and liberating Iraqi territory, but he possesses a quality which almost no Iraqi leaders before him have enjoyed, namely trust.  Aside from  cAbd al-Karim Qasim, who ruled from 1958-1963, and, to a lesser extent, King Faysal I, who ruled from independence in 1921-1933, Iraq has never had a political leader who the populace feels is working on their behalf.  (Among Iraq’s Kurds, Mulla Mustapha Barzani certainly enjoyed that status).  

In light of the track record of failed Iraqi political leaders since independence in 1921, the election of Haydar al-Abadi as prime minister next May is vital for Iraq and the surrounding region. Unlike Faysal I or Qasim, Abadi’s authority did not originate as a result of colonial control of Iraq or a military coup d’├ętat.  To have a democratically elected, highly educated, non-sectarian and civically minded leader of Iraq is essential if the country is to transcend the trauma brought on by scars the Dacish left on large segments of the country's population.