Why political reform is essential to peace in post-ISIS Iraq

After some fourteen years since the occupation and invasion of Iraq, a US – UK experiment in ‘liberal peacebuilding’ that fundamentally transformed the Middle East, little has changed for the wellbeing of ordinary Iraqi citizens. The quality and provision of security, electricity, education and health services have all severely deteriorated or remained abysmally stagnant. More still, millions of Iraqis have been killed, injured, displaced and traumatised, a legacy that will haunt Iraq for decades. With the defeat of ISIS in sight, the debate on Iraq has largely focused on military successes against the ‘caliphate’ and the end game of an international terrorist organisation that threatened the very foundations of the Iraqi state. The debates however and quite troublingly have not focused on political reform.

One would think, given the catastrophic nature of the past few years, that Iraq’s political elites would now be discussing solutions and reforms to its politics with a view to realising a semblance of peace to the war ravaged country. One might also think that a post-ISIS Iraq would be a good time to do this. It is deeply worrying then given the scale of destruction that there is little to no interest amongst its political elites to reform, or for that matter radically transform, a failed political system that gave rise to ISIS and its control of Mosul and other parts of Iraq.

Since 2003, the US and the new political elite it supported have distributed Iraq’s substantial oil resources according to a quota arrangement, which is the basis of its political system. What this has meant is that state Ministries and for that matter all state assets have been distributed, as they are still today, to political parties as an electoral windfall. The quota arrangement introduced under the occupation was neither about governing the country nor strengthening political reconciliation. It was designed instead to appease competing political groups but corrosively nurtured a destructive conflict over the state, its institutions and resources.

The chaos of post-2003 Iraq and more recently that of ISIS arose from the dysfunctional political system that allowed political parties free reign to pillage the institutions of the state. The result has produced a fragmented centralised state with different components of it controlled by competing political actors. Iraq’s political quota system has therefore meant little internal accountability, which has had a debilitating effect on the delivery of state services. In the absence of a cohesive and effective state it is not surprising then that Iraqi citizens today continue to live in unbearable conditions characterised by daily electricity outages, lack of security and worsening poverty levels. It is Iraq’s particular post-2003 politics that created the conditions that saw nonstate actors like al Qaida and ISIS compete with the state itself.

Iraq’s future stability depends on political reform, but political parties and the groups they represent are so entrenched in the quota system that any change in politics will not be tolerated. For them there is too much at stake and their livelihoods are now intertwined with a failed and change resistant system serving elites rather than the people. This is disturbing for Iraq particularly in light of the catastrophic damage conflict has inflicted and the urgent need for an effective centralised state to govern Iraq.

Over the next few months and years political elites will not attempt any radical reforms but instead rely on a mixture of elections and reconstruction aid to fix the country’s problems. These remedies are also troubling as they have been in the case in the past. Post-2003 elections, the first in 2005 and subsequently in 2010 and 2014, have all served to legitimise political parties’ access to state resources but have done little to improve the wellbeing of ordinary Iraqis. In fact, elections have often instigated major levels of violence, as we saw with ISIS after the national elections of 2014 where al Maliki, Iraq’s previous Prime Minister, was accused of winning on the basis of sectarian division. Moreover, with national elections envisaged for 2018, political elites have little to no interest in enacting any real reforms as they themselves prepare for their electoral campaigns.

Without a state accountable to its people, reconstruction will also be lacking. Funds designated by the government after 2014 to Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and aid to ameliorate the misery of those suffering at the hands of ISIS have all been riddled with corruption. The government in Baghdad proposes billions in reconstruction aid to areas devastated by ISIS. In a political system that often sees little co-ordination and accountability between Ministries and state institutions, it will be difficult to see those funds reaching and helping the people of Ninewa and al Anbar.

Since the US invaded Iraq in 2003 the country’s political challenges have largely gone unsolved. Iraq’s weakness is its politics and in the absence of reform it will continue to drift from one crisis to another. It seems it has no real ability to withstand challenges other than through costly conflicts that could have been avoided if it had learnt from the past. Unless Iraq’s political system is reformed, expect the underlying frustration and resentment in the country to continue producing the catastrophes we have seen in recent years.

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About Mehiyar

Dr Mehiyar Kathem is Research Associate and Nahrein Network Coordinator. As part of his role, Mehiyar works on the Visiting Scholarship Scheme where he assists Iraqi academics and professionals during their stay in the UK. His role includes supporting the Nahrein Network team to develop partnerships and communication with Iraqi Government institutions, domestic NGOs and academics. He is also responsible for the social media affairs of the Nahrein Network. Mehiyar completed a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he researched peacebuilding interventions and the formation of Iraq’s domestic NGO sector after the 2003 War. During this research, he looked at the gradual evolution of Iraq from totalitarian dictatorship through the country’s emerging domestic organisations. His research interests include statebuilding, civil society peacebuilding and the ways in which development, politics and money interact at a local level. In 2012 and 2013, Mehiyar conducted field research in Iraq for his PhD programme, spending a year meeting with and interviewing domestic NGO actors, political parties, government officials and international donors. Previously, Mehiyar worked on a number of grassroots programmes geared to build the capacity of civil society organisations and continues to advise international donors on the effective design and delivery of projects in Iraq. He tweets at @mehiyar

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