Iraq at the crossroads

I spent the last weeks of 2014 and the first ones of 2015 in Iraq and felt it was important that I share some of what I witnessed. My time in Iraq was during the busiest time of the year, the time of religious festivals, annual budgets, and of course holidays. Iraq is a land of huge contrasts and of extremes, so I have kept several incidents to myself as they only perpetuate the negative impression of Iraq and its people. In recording some of what I observed I felt the keen disconnect of writing about Iraq as someone who has experienced it and as someone writing for an audience who have not. So these are some thoughts that I attempt to convey as a person who is both inside looking out and outside looking in.

My previous visit was in June/July 2014, a few days after the fall of Mosul I arrived in Baghdad attempting to source news and facts after daesh had made a startling success of its massive propaganda drive. While the military campaign to defeat daesh continues there has been a marked improvement in security, especially in Baghdad, which has been plagued by bombings and killings for over a decade. There is also much more confidence in the security services and the Popular Mobilization, with a growing expectance that daesh will be defeated by end of 2015.

The International Zone (aka the Green Zone) typifies the contrasts of Iraq, it is in the centre of Baghdad and hosts the institutions of the Iraqi state, but does not look or feel as if it is in Iraq. Those who live and work here are isolated from wider society, their experience of Iraq differs from those who live outside it. The streets are cleaner, there is no traffic, no security incidents, electricity never cuts out, and nearly everyone you meet is well-to-do or at least more comfortable than the majority. Some of the people I met either never venture out of the IZ (except to the airport) or do so as part of a convoy on official business to another institution. In the IZ you do not feel the heat, the threat of daesh, or the discontent of the people. Nobody comes into the IZ unless they have clearance, which means ordinary citizens generally never get in. This isolating effect on politicians and officials is damaging, they rarely have an idea of what life is like for the common person. In fact elections are usually the only time in which politicians meet people and are seen outside the IZ (I know some will say that is typical of other countries too).

Each politician is tied to a party, and the few that aren’t don’t make any headway. Senior and junior posts in the civil service, and the Cabinet itself, are allocated to parties. These parties then put forward their candidates, usually without recognition of the capability of that candidate. The PM himself complained in parliament that some of his ministers were forced on him despite his reservations about their capability. This situation compounds the issue of partisan politics, and each ministry, department, agency is overstaffed with competing factions of staff. At one government institution I saw dozens of staff queuing up near the main entrance at 2.45pm, half an hour before their work shift ends so that they can sign out quickly and go home. The few hardworking staff are viewed with suspicion and often find themselves clashing with peers and superiors because they try to do an honest job. In my visits to several offices I found that most civil servants suffered from low morale, felt a sense of entitlement and injustice, and were fiercely partisan. Productivity was largely absent and there seemed to be no desire from senior officials to change the status quo.

The issue of efficiency is dwarfed by that of corruption. It is so organised and so entrenched that even the highest authorities tread carefully. One example I heard from the Interior Minister highlights this: A tip off from senior staff alerted the minister to a contract that was signed by the Head of Procurement in the ministry for bulletproof vests to be distributed to Interior Ministry forces. The contract was for tens of millions of dollars with a foreign company. The officer, a veteran of the ministry with lots of powerful friends, had arranged for a complex set of transfers as payment for delivery of the vests, which arrived few in number and of dubious quality. The minister with his security detail heads to the officer unannounced and upon questioning him learns that there is a large warehouse where the vests are stored. The officer claims that these are samples and refuses to accompany the minister to the warehouse or have it opened. Literally at gunpoint the minister forces the officer to the warehouse where they discover hundreds of vests that were locally made knock offs. Not only did the Head of Procurement steal the funds intended for the foreign company but he also bought fake vests and then sold them to junior officers. The minister ordered his arrest immediately but was told a few days later that the officer was offering bribes of $10m to prison staff, prosecutors, senior officers, to be released. The minister was forced to send his own aides to keep an eye on him around the clock.

These sorts of stories are literally heard everywhere. Nearly every single ministry, department, agency is plagued with corruption. Honest staff are threatened, relocated, or set up with phony accusations against them. But there is one benefit of the economic downturn in Iraq; austerity has squeezed the amount of corruption possible and cases are being discovered daily. The PM is rightly concerned about corruption and sees it as a bigger threat than terrorism. He is hoping that much of it will be tackled before Iraq’s finances improve otherwise there is a danger that increased revenue for the government will end up funding corruption and not benefit the state at all.

The PM himself works long hours, too long in fact, the consequence of meeting with too many people every day. His time is taken up by mediating in crises and keeping political opponents working together. He and his staff have little time to plan ahead because of the inefficiency of the state and its bureaucracy. It seems the government is stuck in firefighting mode, not able to strategize or see beyond the immediate timeframe. An example of this is the oil price crisis where analysts had called for the price to fall under $80 even before the fall of Mosul. Yet the government had failed to heed the warnings and by mid-November still expected oil to average at $80 per barrel in 2015, and was forced to change that to $70 and then $56 by the time the budget was passed at the end of January.

Other woes are well documented and affect every sphere in Iraq. A lot of responsibility, if not cause, falls on the previous administration, who did not make the most of relative stability from 2009 onwards. The blame game can carry on endlessly but I honestly feel that all sides take their share; the Shia parties for their lack of statesmanship and failure to implement good governance, the Sunnis for not accepting the changed realities and undermining the new Iraq, the Kurds for pushing their independence agenda at the cost of the rest of Iraq, the US for destroying it in 2003 and not having a good strategy for properly rebuilding it, and neighbouring countries who are fighting proxy wars and co-opting whoever they can. Ordinary people who I met are largely still partisan and filled with mistrust of the other as a result of endless rhetoric and skewed media coverage. There is very little appetite for self-evaluation, honest and constructive criticism, or reconciliation. But the small minority that does want these is growing, giving hope that a new generation might lead Iraq better than the previous one.

In order for Iraq to rebuild properly there are several major changes that need to take place. I will outline some of these:

  • Reform of and legislation of laws on Provincial powers, Labour, Tax, National and Foreign Investment, Judiciary, Hydrocarbons, Political Parties, Land and Planning, and Privatization
  • Push for decentralization and better implementation of federalism
  • Restructuring of foreign policy and lessening dependence on both the US and Iran, reworking relationship with Turkey, improving ties with Gulf states, and leveraging ties with Egypt, Jordan, China, India and Japan, building existing relationships with EU, Russia
  • Agree on independence referendum with KRG to take place in 2017 with a simple yes/no question
  • Austerity, productivity, efficiency, and anti-corruption drives to reduce size of civil service, increase working hours, reduce holidays, limit middle management, and cut budgets for departments
  • Introduce a single national biometric card that covers identity, address, proof of entitlements, elections, security, banking
  • Removal of all subsidies except for the poorest in society (those on welfare), end of ration card system and divert funds to welfare
  • Build financial systems (banking, currency) to reduce reliance on cash, open up credit and loans
  • Reform of healthcare sector
  • Introduce major civil society program to include revised education curriculums, reconciliation programs, media reform, compulsory gap year/national service, support for NGOs, easing social mobility

I am aware that some of these steps are already on the agenda and while these are not all the solutions for a better Iraq they do represent some of the most pressing ones. Perhaps the most important change needed is in the mindset of the average Iraqi; a better educated, tolerant, hardworking, and good citizen one is needed.

It is possible that Iraq has more than twice the current estimated oil reserves it has, in which case it can become a G20 economy easily if the right administration is in place. But economic wealth is only one aspect of why Iraq is important and should succeed. Iraq is not a failed state and will not become one but it does need reforms in order to recover from being the broken society that was left post 2003. In fact I see the challenges of 2014 as being a positive catalyst; the security services are being reformed, the government looks stronger, and the international community is supporting Iraq more than ever. Whatever path Iraq takes these next few years will not be an easy one but decisions made at the crossroads today will make the journey worthwhile or not.

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3 Responses to Iraq at the crossroads

  1. Martin Sepulveda says:

    I appreciate you sharing your perspective on Iraq. It is what is needed in order for American’s to try and understand a proper role for the United States to play as Iraq moves forward. I’ve spent much time in Iraq as a military officer. I too was in Baghdad at the end of 2014 until a few weeks ago; mid January 2015. There has been transformation, I think the PM is the right man for the job, however much more change is needed and I fear there may not be enough time to make those changes. While westerners have a different concept of time than Arabs, I don’t believe that the window of opportunity is very big. Finally, I would hope that an Iraqi discussion takes place that includes Sunni semi-autonomy. I don’t believe that Iran will stop influencing Iraq anytime soon and the reality is that there is little belief that the Sunni tribes will be treated as equal members in an Iraqi society dominated by Shi’a and Persian interests.

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