IISS Manama Dialogue 2017 Fourth Plenary Session 
Professor Toby Dodge, Consulting Senior Fellow for the Middle East, IISS

As Delivered

Many thanks, John, and thanks for giving me a platform. Now, as some of you know, I have worked on Iraq all my adult life, both advising government and in universities, teaching students, writing about it. And like the Iraqi population themselves, my optimism or pessimism, my anger or depression, has gone up and down.

I walked into today’s special session on the future of Iraq rather naïvely being quite optimistic, and I walked out being very pessimistic. My optimism, I think, springs from the liberation of Iraq, announced yesterday, from the Islamic State or Daesh’s dominance – a clear military victory where, with coalition help, the Iraqi Armed Forces broke the military capacity of a sub-state actor. But my pessimism, and I think the pessimism of the panel and the audience in the breakout session, springs from a sense of familiarity.

Let us cast our minds back to 2003, when a quite frankly brilliant military campaign overwhelmed a much weaker enemy in the Ba’athist army of Saddam Hussein and came to occupy Iraq. Then, in 2007, an even more astute, powerful deployment of counter-insurgency doctrine broke both those Shia militias and malign actors who were key players in the civil war and then what was then called al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. But on each occasion, stunning military victories proved not to be politically sustainable, because the surge and the invasion of 2003 were not underpinned by a political strategy that was deliverable.

We come through to today, and the declaration of victory against the Islamic State or Daesh. What would we need as a political strategy to consolidate those gains and, for the first time, not see, as someone said in the panel today, that movie being replayed? That a huge sacrifice and strategic insight on the battlefield is then squandered in the parliament or on the ground.

I have got three big points that react to the three big historical events that have dominated Iraq this year. Firstly, we have the liberation of Mosul in July 2017. Now, someone pointed out in the panel, as he has done frequently before, that since 2003, military control of Mosul has changed hands seven times. Mosul and what it represents as the second or third city in Iraq, and the city in the northwest, what it represents has been fought over and sub-state actors have removed Iraqi government control seven times.

From that point of view, why do military victories end in political defeats? I think the central issue around this is the alienation of sections of the population of Iraq from the Iraqi state, but also, from 2003 onwards, the Iraqi state’s inability to push its institutions into society and deliver services in a meaningful way. Let us not forget, it was only a year after the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in the summer of 2015 that demonstrations triggered by the government’s inability to supply electricity started out in Basra and rolled all the way up to Baghdad, and those demonstrations still weekly occur in Freedom Square in central Baghdad.

What were those demonstrators complaining about? They were complaining about the inability of the Iraqi government to deliver electricity in the hottest of Iraqi summers, but behind that, they were complaining about the rampant corruption of the elite, empowered after 2003, and their cynical and instrumental deployment of religion and, indeed, communalist identities to hide that corruption.

I think the first big issue from the liberation of Mosul is to ask, what would the political strategy be, and, of course, what would be the political strategy of the Iraqi government, but also what would be the political strategy of its allies. We have seen a rapprochement, an opening up of relations between Baghdad and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. There has been a lot of talk over this weekend about the Kuwait donors’ conference next year. There is a high expectation, so two things need to come from that: certainly, pledges of money from the GCC and the international community, but meaningful pledges of economic reform from the Iraqi government, shrinking a payroll that had become bloated through political patronage, moving to deliver services.

Now, the second big issue, which is probably the most controversial, is the referendum within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in September 2017, and then the taking back of Kirkuk and the move of the government of Iraq forces into the disputed territories in October 2017. Now, of course, the main problem in the main policy recommendation is that Baghdad and Erbil, Masoud Barzani, to personalise it, and Haider al-Abadi, the Prime Minister, are not engaged in meaningful negotiations. And the great worry, against the background of a military victory, is that inability to discuss, that inability to negotiate from good faith, means that the military victory may well be squandered.

But sitting behind that is the profound question that has never been answered: how does federalism work in Iraq, and on what basis? We have waited for an oil law. We have seen these powerful arguments about budgets. We have seen the Kurdish Regional Government develop its own independent oil industry and exports through Turkey. But underpinning that is the question about the relationship between Baghdad and its regions.

I think, again, another policy recommendation, another positive policy move is the commitment of Prime Minister Abadi to decentralise, but to decentralise along geographic, provincial lines, not sectarian, religious or nationalist lines, and to try and move power into the provincial governments. Now, I think anyone who has watched Iraq for a long time has seen the rate of incumbency in provincial councils drop away, where people on the ground voting for their provincial representations have kicked ineffective, corrupt, inefficient politicians out all across Iraq.

You could argue that democracy in the provinces, untainted or with minimal ability to refer to sectarian ideologies, is somehow working, that the people are removing representatives that seem unfit. But again, Haider al-Abadi, I think this indicates a larger, overarching argument, that he is fighting to push power down into the provinces; but his own ministers … I interviewed a provincial governor who said he meets with the Prime Minister every couple of months. He said, ‘Do you know Sir, your ministers are breaking the law. They are not giving us the financial autonomy, the power that they legally should.’ And he wrings his hands and says, ‘I am really sorry about that, but on my list of things to get achieved while I stay in power, pushing my ministers to give you power is not at the top and I do not have the capacity to do that.’ Whereas I think from the other side, provincial decentralisation, the putting of agency and power down at the provincial level, could be a way of starting to move to reform the Iraqi state, bringing it closer to its population.

The fourth thing is the elections, the national elections of May 2018, and again, there is a sense, amongst friends – I would not put it any stronger than that – but there is a sense that Iraq may be moving beyond the sectarian politics that have dominated it since the two elections in 2005.

As we know, after each national election, there has been a government of national unity built around what is called the Muhassasa system, that basically divides up the ministries amongst the successful political parties, and then allows them to use the resources that the ministries bring for basically political corruption. That is why the payroll of Iraq has expanded so rapidly, as people are employed for party political reasons, not for efficiency. So, if we could move beyond the sectarian rhetoric; if Iraq can find a way to move to election campaigning that focuses on issues – who is the best person for this ministry? Do we need technocrats or politicians? Why can we not get enough electricity to our population in the summer? Why has corruption not been tackled? – as opposed to focusing on sectarian identities, the lowest common denominator, to mobilise people, scaring them, driving them to the ballot box, then you could see potentially the end of the Muhassasa system, the removal of religion and communal difference as the drapery, the shield behind which Iraqi politicians failed to deliver to the people’s needs.

But of course, there is a legacy from the campaign against Daesh and that is the legacy of the Hashd al-Shaabi, the Popular Mobilisation Units, that has come up in nearly every plenary that we have been speaking about. Now, undoubtedly, as the Iraqi Army collapsed, as the very mobile forces of Daesh swept from Mosul towards Baghdad, Ayatollah Sistani issued a powerful fatwa calling on all able-bodied Iraqis to join the government in defending Iraq. The outcome, I am afraid, and this is poor English, but bear with me, was the re-militia-isation of Iraqi politics. That those existing militias that had been demobilised, or the space they occupied, had been shrunk from the 2007 surge onwards, re-empowered themselves, took that mass mobilisation and brought those people to the front line. The Hashd al-Shaabi law that attempted to integrate those militia forces into the government of Iraq’s command structure and paid them, I do not think has succeeded. If you look at the percentage of the billions of dollars that are going to the Hashd al-Shaabi, not only have the Popular Mobilisation Units become a net drain on the government resources at a time of low oil prices, when they cannot deploy that money, but also they have become a drain on government resources, where the spending of money is not transparent. It needs to be much more closely audited, and you need a section of the Hashd al-Shaabi to be integrated into the Iraqi military and put under the command and control of the government, but a large section, the majority to be demobilised, sent home and integrated into a productive economy.

Against that background, and keeping in mind the inability of both Iraq and the international community to capitalise on the victories of 2003 and 2007, there are a series of policy recommendations given humbly to you against the background of an Iraq policy review in the United States that is soon to be unveiled.

The first is clearly learning the mistakes, not only of 2007 but of 2011. Under political pressure and under demands from the Iraqi governing elite, the United States limited, reduced and then removed its troops, and with that came a lack of political influence and a lack of an ability to shape the ground in Iraq.

I think it needs to be said loudly and it needs to be said clearly that the international community, the coalition, the good work that the United Nations is doing will not stop. In fact, it will accelerate, with the donors’ conference in Kuwait being the starting gun for that speedy expansion of international civilian political engagement with Iraq.

I think the second policy recommendation is a heavy investment in the demobilisation of the Hashd al-Shaabi, learning actually the lessons of 2007, that when you shrink the space for the militias to thrive, individual militia members have a tendency to go home, because they are not profiting or getting glory from their role on the streets of Baghdad or other cities. I think demobilisation, reintegration and the much-needed radical reform of the Iraqi armed services.

The final thing is the elections, the national elections of May 2018, a crucial set of elections where there is the possibility that the old, divisive mobilising techniques of sectarian division are put behind and actually the Iraqi politicians move forward to focus on practical issues, manifestoes about political reform, manifestoes about reducing corruption, about moving towards a unitary polity that interacts with Iraqi citizens as citizens, not as members of sub-state groups. So, for the international community, I think it is developing a political strategy, it is giving commitments to stay the course, it is focusing on helping on demobilisation, but it is encouraging Iraqi politicians to move away from the sectarian rhetoric of the past towards an election campaign that focuses on explanations about why and how they can deliver government services more effectively and apologise for the failures of the past. Thank you very much.


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