Iraq’s security, economic and governance challenges

Dr Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

A visit to Iraq this month was instructive on the challenges facing the country, but also the real determination to undo the damage caused by years of war and destruction. Iraqis expressed confidence that the upcoming national elections would help guide the political process and reignite economic development. They also pinned their hopes on support from neighbors, especially the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and international partners to assist in Iraq’s recovery.

The elections have been rescheduled from June to October. Organizing the polls was a major demand of the popular protests that swept Iraq from October 2019. The demonstrators also railed against deteriorating economic and security conditions, as well as Iran’s hegemony. The elections have now been championed by political groups and some of the militias targeted by those protests and which have, in turn, taken part in the violent suppression of some of the demonstrations.

Since taking office last May, Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has made preparing for fair and free elections a priority. The young protesters, political groups and militias naturally have different expectations of the upcoming elections. There are fears that some militias will try to manipulate them through violence, threats and intimidation to maintain their power and subvert the will of the Iraqi voters, and with it their hopes for better economic conditions and genuine independence.

The rocket attacks on Irbil on Monday, including one near the city’s airport that resulted in a number of American casualties, highlighted the precarious security situation throughout Iraq, including Iraqi Kurdistan, which had recently enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence. A seemingly pro-Iran group has claimed responsibility for these attacks and vowed more against Americans everywhere in Iraq, “including Kurdistan.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was “outraged” at the Irbil attack and said that he had reached out to the Kurdistan Regional Government to discuss the incident and pledge support for “all efforts to investigate and hold accountable those responsible.” What is also needed is that the US articulate a coherent policy for Iraq as a whole; something that has been conspicuously absent from the new administration’s public statements.
Clearly, the elections will not be a panacea for all Iraq’s daunting challenges, of which there are many, but I will address just two: Security and economic recovery.

On security, Iraq faces the twin threats of Daesh regrouping and the heavy-handed influence of pro-Iran sectarian militias. Despite its military defeat and loss of territorial control in 2018, Daesh still maintains a significant presence in western Iraq, representing an enduring threat to the country’s security and its ability to stabilize those areas. At the same time, the presence of sectarian militias antagonizes local populations and is, in turn, used by Daesh as a pretext for its presence. It is clear that the two groups feed off each other and that the simmering conflict has made it difficult to stabilize those areas. This conflict will also make it difficult to freely conduct the upcoming elections in those areas.

To eliminate the threat from Daesh, professional security forces should lead the fight against the terror group, not sectarian militias, in order to gain the trust of the population of those areas. The same professional forces also need to counter the threat from the pro-Iran militias that have usurped government authority in a number of areas. Some have engaged in attacks against peaceful protesters, while others have attacked the Global Coalition Against Daesh, as we saw in Monday’s attack against Irbil.
Cooperation with the global coalition is key to fighting Daesh and other anti-government militias, as well as restoring security and some semblance of normal life in areas liberated from Daesh.

In a positive step, Al-Kadhimi announced on Monday the arrest of members of a “death squad” responsible for the assassinations of journalists, politicians and activists in Basra province. He tweeted that the arrests will uncover information on “many of the assassinations that have terrorized Basra’s population,” and promised that their trial will be held in public.
The rocket attacks on Irbil on Monday highlight the precarious security situation throughout Iraq.

On economic recovery, Iraq is blessed with abundant resources and a youthful and educated labor force. It has the potential to transform into an economic giant in the region, but its ability to get there is being shackled by the legacies of decades-long conflict and bad governance. Addressing the security threats is important to attracting investors and restoring robust economic activity, but it is not enough. Establishing reliable mechanisms of good governance is equally important.

There have been hopeful signs, including restoring diplomatic relations with neighbors and opening the border with Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom and other GCC investors and exporters have expressed great interest in the Iraqi market, but that interest has to be translated into facts on the ground. Energy cooperation between Iraq and Saudi Arabia is making progress, in addition to cooperation with the GCC in this area, including connecting southern Iraq with the GCC electrical grid.

The Iraq reconstruction conference, organized by Kuwait in 2018, represented a major vote of confidence in the country’s future. Countries and international organizations pledged about $30 billion in investment and loans to the Iraqi recovery, including about $5 billion from the GCC, $4.7 billion from the World Bank, and $3 billion from the US. The EU, UN and others pledged the rest. However, very little of the promised funds have actually materialized. One way to recapture that momentum and unblock those commitments is for another round of international coordination, especially between the major actors in that conference — Iraq, the GCC, the US, EU, World Bank and UN. The goal should be to address the obstacles and establish reliable mechanisms to help activate the pledges made in Kuwait three years ago.

The writer is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist.