By Talmiz Ahmad
13 March 2018
Iraq will in May elect members to its Council of Representatives, which will decide the future shape of a country that has endured war, occupation and external interference for nearly 40 years. This period of conflict may be ending: Prime Minister Haider Abadi declared victory over Daesh in July last year, after Iraqi forces ended the three-year occupation of Mosul, and in October Hawija, the last city under Daesh control, also fell.
The elections will not offer easy choices, as persistent conflict has torn apart the national fabric and exposed deep fault lines, leaving large sections of the population in confrontation with each other amidst broken homes and severely damaged public infrastructure and services. External players are also manipulating local divisions and promoting groups serving their interests.
The immediate challenge before the political leadership is the plight of the’’\ three million internally displaced persons, along with the need to repair their homes and provide civic amenities to them. Most of the displaced are from Nineveh Governorate, which has Mosul as its capital. The rebuilding of Mosul alone will require about a billion dollars immediately, with the country as a whole needing about $100 billion.
This massive effort at national reconstruction and rehabilitation will have to be accompanied by a country-wide attempt to heal ethnic, sectarian and religious differences that are the result of deliberate divide-and-rule policies by the occupation forces, external players and domestic politicians.
The Kurds attempted to use the conflict scenario to realize their aspirations for independence by capturing large parts of the “disputed territories” — areas they assert had Kurdish majorities until earlier rulers deliberately changed their demographics by expelling Kurds and bringing in Arabs and other ethnic groups. These included Kirkuk and the surrounding oil fields, which provided 30 percent of the revenues of the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). They then went ahead with a referendum to obtain support for independence in September last year, but these dreams were quickly dashed when Iraqi forces recaptured Kirkuk and the oil fields in October.
The accommodation of the Kurds within a new national fabric that has a robust federal character is therefore a major challenge for the central government. This will require agreements relating to revenue-sharing and the integration of the Kurdish forces — the 150,000-strong Peshmerga — into the national army.
Along with this, the complex issue of the disputed territories will need to be addressed. Whatever the historical validity of the Kurdish claims, which are hotly contested by historians, demographic changes over several decades have made most of these territories multi-ethnic and multi-denominational. Thus, it will be impossible to recover their so-called Kurdish character without dislodging several hundred thousand people; a daunting task amidst the death, destruction and displacement that Iraq has endured.
The sectarian divide remains at the heart of Iraq’s torn national order: Sectarian identity remains the principal mobilization force in Iraq’s electoral politics. However, there are signs that many politicians and large sections of the national community have realized the destructive implications of sect-based politics and are increasingly working together in the nation-building effort, prioritizing their “Arab” rather than sectarian identity.
Iraq’s national identity has been reinforced by the professionalism and non-sectarian character of its freshly organized and trained armed forces, their resounding success against Daesh, and the genuine efforts being made by Abadi to heal the nation. However, the challenge from sect-based militias remains; the most dangerous among them being the remaining sections of the Popular Mobilization Units, whose primary allegiance seems to lie with Iran. But Iran will not readily allow the PMU to be disbanded and merged with the national army, for they are not only a source of its influence in Iraq, but they could also be used in Syria to support its political agenda in that conflict-ridden country.
Besides these immediate challenges relating to national reconstruction and integration, the government elected in May will have to cope with some urgent structural issues pertaining to governance. Commentators have noted that widespread misgovernance and corruption in Iraq, particularly during the sectarian regime of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, had discredited the government and debilitated the armed forces, and thus facilitated the spread of Daesh.
The government will also need to focus on the education and employment of women and youth, both of whom have been severely affected by the conflicts since 1980.
Addressing the post-Daesh challenges in Iraq requires a regional effort, with neighbouring states working together in a genuine spirit of camaraderie for the greater interest of the region. Only such a spirit will give substance and credibility to a regionally supported “Marshall Plan” for Iraq.
An integrated Iraq will be a bastion of economic opportunity and political stability for the entire region. Alternatively, without such backing, Iraq could descend into sectarian divisiveness and clashes among foreign powers that could facilitate the re-emergence of Daesh as a region-wide scourge.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia.