Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Is Reconciliation Possible In Iraq?

Reconciliation is often discussed in Iraq, but rarely ever accomplished. The Prime Minister has talked about it, there have been joint Sunni-Shiite prayers and tribal meetings, but nothing ever comes of them. The National Democratic Institute recently released a report “Iraq’s Road to Reconciliation” about this topic based upon interviews with religious, tribal, community and protest leaders. One of the major difficulties was that people often don’t agree upon what reconciliation means and who should be included. The biggest problem however was that the country’s political elite who are expected to lead Iraq in this process, have no desire to do so because they live off of division to stay in power.

All of those included in the National Democratic Institute survey agreed that Iraq’s politicians were barriers to reconciliation. That was because the country’s leaders advocated sectarianism and division to maintain their positions. At the same time, the elite were believed to be the only ones capable of pushing the process forward. Reconciliation between the political class was also important because their differences were a major reason why the country remained deadlocked on so many important issues. That history and the political benefits garnered from sectarianism were why none were willing to seriously deal with rapprochement. The people in the survey thought that it was up to the public therefore to pressure the government towards change. The problem with that approach is that the ruling parties are not beholden to the public, but instead the people are reliant upon them. For example, there have been years of protests in Iraq, and there are ones going on right now, but all they have garnered is lip service from politicians. That’s because Iraq’s oil based economy means that the government does not need taxes from the public for funds, but rather uses its natural wealth to become the largest employer and provider in the country. This is a common practice in petroleum dependent countries. Without that connection it’s unlikely that any demonstrations can make Iraq’s rulers move towards reconciliation unless they themselves want to, which does not look like it will happen any time soon.

Even if that process were to begin there are major barriers to it being successful in Iraq. First, no one seemed to agree on the terms and players that should be involved. Each group looked at the issue different. For example should it be Shiites and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds, Baathists and everyone else, Iraq and foreign countries, should insurgents be involved, etc. There was also the issue of whether it should just focus upon present wrongs or historical ones. The National Democratic Institute brought up amnesty as a perfect example of this dilemma. Many said they supported the idea as a concept, but when they got into the specifics there was no agreement. For example, not many thought that people that had killed should be included. Given all the differences in Iraq there was probably no consensus on what even that meant. Would that just be members of the former regime, insurgents, militias, etc. That led few to believe that amnesty could be implemented in practice. Another issue was that few had any trust in the judiciary, which would be intimately involved in any amnesty program. The courts were considered corrupt and under political control, and thus easily manipulated. Finally, many Kurds had lost trust in Baghdad, and did not want to work on many of these issues because they had decided on independence instead. What everyone could agree upon was that any rapprochement had to be based upon Iraqi identity instead of sect or ethnicity. Again, all of these differences pointed to how far away Iraq was from even opening the door to reconciliation because so few could agree on even basic terms.

The third factor brought up was that sectarianism within society needed to be addressed, not just with the political parties. In polls, Iraqis say that they do not think in ethnosectarian terms, but when they were questioned on specific issue they often did. This was especially true today as the Islamic State has played upon the divisions within the country and increased tensions between communities. The violence of the insurgents has also created a deep seated desire for revenge amongst many groups that will take years to overcome.

The National Democratic Institute finished with six steps Iraq should take to move forward with reconciliation. The first was judicial reform. The courts play a crucial role in this process. They would oversee the release of prisoners, enforcement of due process, impartial prosecutions, etc. Making judges independent, and not beholden to political parties would be an important move to ensure that Iraq would start moving towards those goals. Second was a more equitable distribution of resources. Many of those interviewed thought that politicians and their cronies got all the benefits from the country. This was an especially important issue for the Kurds who believe Baghdad has cut them off. There was also a push for great transparency over the budget and decentralization of power to the provinces. The third was disarming groups. The Hashd, tribes, and others need to be demobilized after the war with the Islamic State. This would be easier said then done as many foreign powers back armed groups and would not agree to having them give up their weapons. Four was ending the quota system in government that determines the top positions in government. Many believe that the quotas are at the heart of the ethnosectarian political system that rules the country, and therefore ending it would be a blow to it. Five was holding reconciliation conferences, which was self-explanatory. Last was countering foreign influence in Iraq. Outside powers were seen as supporting the political divisions within the country to maintain their influence. Pushing Iraqi nationalism over ethnosectarianism was seen as a possible way to lesson this interference. These were all good suggestions, but the likelihood of them happening was little to none. As the study already noted Iraq’s politicians have no stomach for any real reform, especially if it threatens their hold on power. All of these proposals would do that. Prime Minister Abadi for example, brought up judicial reform at the end of 2015. When it came to it however, he left it up to the judges to change themselves, which never happened. That in a nutshell is the problem with reconciliation in Iraq. The public wants it, and even some politicians, but as long as the majority of elite do not, nothing will happen. The country’s leadership simply has too much to lose in such a process, and therefore will continue to stand in the way.


National Democratic Institute, “Iraq’s Road to Reconciliation,” 1/14/16

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