Iraq is in the midst of an existential crisis, but there is still hope it can survive the ordeal, writes Salah Nasrawi
Regime change from outside in Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003 was a disaster because it not only failed to produce a democratic and prosperous nation, but also resulted in the mess of a visibly failed state and deep communal divisions that have shaken the country to the core.
The shaky political process that was then launched and the dysfunctional governing system which was installed by the US Occupying Authority also increased radicalisation and created regional instability.
The main reasons behind the setbacks were the failed transition and the subsequent failure of state- and nation-building efforts, largely because of poor war planning and the hasty changes of power.
While the strategic choices made by the US planners and preventable mismanagement by the Occupying Authority administrators bear some responsibility, poor performance, corruption and greed by Iraq’s new political class that assumed power following the invasion must take much of the blame for the country’s subsequent disasters.
Harmful interference by Iraq neighbours was another key factor behind the nation’s botched transition. The failure to initiate state-rebuilding demonstrated a huge gap between the expectations of a new Iraq after the ouster of former president Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and the resulting abysmal outcomes.
Still worse, the main consequences of the flawed handling of post-Saddam Iraq have been the increasing ethno-sectarian divisions that now threaten to break up the country. The biggest mistake made by the US Occupying Authority was the creation of an ethno-sectarian political system designed to share power according to a quota system among Iraq’s communities.
This formula helped to empower the majority Muslim Shia and ethnic Kurds, but it infuriated the minority Arab Sunnis who had ruled over Iraq for some 80 years, triggering a violent Sunni uprising to press for inclusion and equity.
Rather than establishing a consensual democracy, difficult in a country without a strong tradition of democratic participation, it effectively split the newly elected parliament into three hostile fronts and created communal divisions.
Moreover, it empowered the political class or oligarchy that has since dominated representation and power in Iraq and has controlled the country’s wealth and resources to serve the interests of its members and the cronies under their tutelage.
Thirteen years after Saddam’s ouster, this ruling class has failed to rebuild the war-torn country despite receiving nearly half a trillion US dollars in oil revenues, leaving behind a deeply divided country steeped in ruin, corruption and poverty.
Over these years this ruling class has done everything it can to prevent state-building from taking place. Violations of the constitution, weakening the legislature’s power, undermining the judiciary’s independence, monopolising the government, and controlling the security forces are main examples of the abuse of power that has undermined state capacity and democracy building.
Consequently, this has led to political exclusion, increased post-invasion conflict, the strengthening of minority identities with the rise of sectarianism and ethnicity based politics, and increased destabilisation.
Among the damage done to any state-building efforts in post-invasion Iraq has been the failure of the new political system to construct a common national identity, strengthen patriotism and belonging, or establish constitutional citizenry.
A formidable challenge was whether the new political leaders would be able to rise to the task of healing the wounds stemming from both Saddam’s legacy and the dilemmas of the post-2003 situation by implementing a national-reconciliation programme.
The unfortunate reality is that after more than 13 years, Iraq’s leadership has failed to rise to the task of establishing a credible mechanism of political compromise and effective conflict resolution.
Yet, the need for a transformative leadership to carry out state-building has given rise to non-sectarian, non-partisan and liberal-minded activists and civil society groups that have called for the establishment of a “civic state,” defined as a non-sectarian and democratic state of common citizenship.
The recent crisis of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s Shia-led government was sparked by the failure of Iraq’s political groups to respond to demands to fight the rampant corruption in the country and implement a wide-ranging reform programme, underscoring the need for an overhaul of the entire political system.
In essence, the lingering political crisis has indicated that Iraq’s problems are those of state-building and nation-building — concepts which have not been considered seriously and processes that have been neglected by the existing leadership.
A failed state: Iraq was identified as a failed state long before the Islamic State (IS) terror group made its stunning advances and captured large swathes of Iraqi territory in summer 2014.
The war to drive IS militants from Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq has been devastating in terms of the cost to political, economic and communal relations. Its conclusion will highlight the need for reconstructing the Iraqi state and society.
Even if Iraq survives its current turbulence and wins the war against IS, the battered nation will have to struggle to peacefully rebuild. In order for Iraq to move forward as a unitary state, a new political process for rebuilding the state and the nation should start the day after the Iraqi security forces have won the war against IS.
Taking into consideration the setbacks over the last 13 years and in a country divided along sectarian, ethnic and political lines, state- and nation-building should be done on the basis of a new social and political contract.
The present writer argues that in order to launch a successful state- and nation-building process, Iraq’s communities, political groups and civil society should come up with a new deal.
Employing a framework inspired by the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, there should be a historical compromise, or grand bargain, that would create a cross-national bloc that would agree on a new holistic approach not only to sharing power and wealth, but also to the larger objective of living together in a united, free, democratic and prosperous country.
This should be part of a two-tier approach based on identifying and managing internal and external stakeholder interests. While this would assume an internal process and an external assistance scheme, the two should be complementary and well-integrated.
On the internal level, a new political process should be launched with an end result that would lead to the replacement of the present broken political system with a new and functional one. This would require a new transition that would lead to new elections and the drafting of a new constitution and a new political system in line with the new contract and a new spirit of nationalism and partnership.
The first step should be the formation of a transitional and non-partisan government that would prepare for the new democratic elections and the drafting of a new constitution. To implement such a programme, this government would need to be appointed with the consent of the major political forces in the country and receive a mandate from the international community.
In order to consolidate the new political process an economic reform strategy should also be adopted. This economic plan should include a reconstruction programme that would cover all the Iraqi provinces and not only the cities and areas that have been destroyed, damaged or affected by the war against IS.
In this regard, a new agreement for sharing and administering national resources that includes the management of state revenues should also be worked out. Effective anti-corruption laws and measures should be enforced that would give priority to returning Iraq’s stolen money from abroad and bring the perpetrators of this to justice.
Decentralisation remains essential, and the new system should ensure credible governance and concrete steps to combat mismanagement and waste on both the central and provincial levels.
A properly reconstructed Iraq would require dealing with the non-state actors who have risen to prominence over the period since the US-led invasion and the ouster of Saddam and who now pose enormous challenges to the state.
Powerful non-state actors, such as the militias, clergymen and tribes that since 2003 have been playing key roles in different domains should be managed, regulated or institutionalised under the new constitution based on common citizenship.
Externally, the United States, the United Nations, the world’s major powers, and Iraq’s powerful neighbours that have stakes in Iraq should be actively and effectively involved in this process in a variety of ways.
Since 2003, world powers and the country’s ambitious neighbours have been engaged in Iraq above all to maintain either their geostrategic or national interests. Sometimes their narrow-minded and self-oriented policies and interference in Iraq have helped to perpetuate the country’s conflicts.
State- and nation-building: A constructive role by the international community in the rebuilding of the country remains vital, but it is expected to shift in approach from providing financial aid for post-conflict pacification to a strategy of rebuilding a failed nation.
One good idea would be for the international community to engage in a three-tier effort to help resettle and rebuild Iraq, while still allowing the 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 as a whole can assist by providing expertise and support in building institutional capacity and encouraging the Iraqi state-builders to 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 rule of 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 the country.
Second, it is for the international community to help in peace-building and preventing the renewal of conflict or violence. Two areas remain major concerns: the Iraqi security forces and non-state paramilitary actors including the Kurdish Peshmergas, Shia militias and Sunni armed groups.
International support remains vital for successful peace-building efforts that would include 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, the international community should be ready to help in the costly and long-term reconstruction programme in Iraq. Iraq needs to go beyond conventional post-conflict reconstruction and choose an unconventional approach that takes into consideration its complexities.
In addition to a new social and political contract between Iraqis for a functioning national political structure, a framework for re-integrating Iraq into the region should be worked out. It is important to note that both Iraqis and international stakeholders could benefit from lessons learned from elsewhere.
In the context of reintegrating Iraq into the region, the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, also known as the Dayton Agreement, could be used as an example for efforts to resolve Iraq’s conflicts and their regional implications.
Despite the cautionary tales of its shortcomings, the Dayton Agreement put an end to the fighting in the Former Yugoslavia. Iraq to a great extent shares the complexity of the Former Yugoslavia, and in particular it shares the diversity of its communities and the regional dimensions of its conflict.
Like the Dayton Agreement, Iraq needs a deal which would create a mechanism that would promote peace and stability in the country and endorse the regional balance in and around the country.
Such an agreement could mandate a wide range of international organisations to monitor, oversee, and implement the political, military and security components of it. The European Union security and neighbourhood agreements provide examples for Iraq’s neighbours to work with on how a new regional security and cooperation order could help in resolving both Iraq’s conflicts and those of the region as a whole.
The Treaty of Westphalia that ended the wars waged by the competing European dynasties in the 17th century and the 1975 Helsinki Accords that eased the tensions between the East and West in the Cold War also provide historical examples of nations resolving conflicts despite decades of war.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) provides another example of a political and economic framework for regional cooperation to maintain peace and security.
Asian nations that have fought bloody wars with each other and suffered from prolonged conflicts have also been able to overcome their historic animosities and join another cooperation forum, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, in order to promote regional peace and stability.
Of course, no international or regional security arrangement is perfect, and experts may point to deadlocks and problems in all these agreements. However, such a package remains Iraq’s best chance to guarantee the country’s territorial and national integrity until a lasting agreement is reached.