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Twitter Hashtag: #10iraq
Irfan Azeez Azeez
2013 marks the ten year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by US and UK forces, the swift and catastrophic collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, and the beginning of a period of occupation and radical societal change. On 16th October 2003, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1511 unanimously sanctioned a long-term international presence in Iraq, effectively handing control of the country to Washington. A recent two-day conference at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge used this landmark date as the anchor for an assessment of a decade of new governance in Iraq, with generous funding by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI), Control Risks, Brehon Advisory and Mr Richard Greer.
Speakers included Faik Nerwayi, the Iraqi Ambassador to the UK; Sinan Shabibi, the former governor of the Central Bank of Iraq; Falah Mustafa, Minister of Foreign Relations in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG); Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, KRG High Representative to the UK; Sadiq Rikabi and Dr Haider Abadi, Iraqi Members of Parliament; Dhia Mohsin Al-Hakim, UK Representative of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq; Fanar Haddad, Fellow at the National University of Singapore; Haydar Al-Khoei, Fellow at Chatham House; Faleh Jabar, Director of the Iraqi Institute for Security Studies; Hanaa Edwar, women’s rights campaigner and Secretary-General of the al-Amal Organisation; Toby Dodge, Fellow at the LSE; Louise Fawcett, Fellow at the University of Oxford; Rodney Wilson, Professor at the University of Durham; Mark Dempsey, Consultant at Brehon Advisory; Hassan al-Dahan, Chairman of Bain al-Nahrain; and former British ambassadors Sir William Patey, Edward Chaplin, and Noel Guckian.
Weaving together salient themes from Politics and International Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Economics, Law, Sociology, History, and Anthropology, and drawing in scholars and practitioners from these fields, the conference presented a range of theoretical and empirical insights into the challenges and opportunities of governance in contemporary Iraq, perhaps as much raising new questions as providing clear answers. Indeed, it was with a number of thought-provoking and perhaps contentious observations that the conference started.
Conveners Renad Mansour and Michael Clark noted that ten years on, Iraqis are still faced with a security dilemma. According to Iraq Body Count, September 2013 accounted for 1,220 civilian deaths. Average deaths per day has spiked to 40.6, from 12.6 in 2012 and 11.3 in 2011. These figures are approaching those of the civil war, when average deaths per day were 44.4 in 2005, 79.8 in 2006, and 69.9 in 2007. Such increases in security incidents trouble Iraq’s development and raise anxieties of a return to militarized sectarianism.
Mansour and Clark also noted that after a decade, the government is unable to meet the needs of its citizenry. A 2012 Gallup poll highlighted increasing dissatisfaction with government services (security, electricity, health, water, employment, and education), from 50% in 2010 to 64% in 2012. Nepotism and endemic corruption associated with oil rentierism were also discussed.
Beyond moving from a unitary to a federal/decentralised state, discussions over the two days flushed out another fundamental change: following 2003, Iraq transitioned from a polity based on a Sunni-Shi’i understanding with Kurdish accommodation to one based on a Shi’i-Kurdish understanding with Sunni accommodation.
It was noted that Iraq’s transition could be divided into four distinct phases: an interim period (2003-2005) when the constitution was negotiated and endorsed by a referendum; a civil war phase (2006-2007) when sectarian differences between the Shi’i and the Sunni groups turned militarised; a good citizenship phase (2008-2010) when the major sides (particularly the al-Sahwa movement and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and al-Ahrar bloc) re-strategized and decided to use the democratic process to relay grievances; and an over-centralization period (2010-present) when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki consolidated his rule by tightening his grip over key cabinet portfolios, independent commissions, the judiciary, the central bank, and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).
In 2012, this over-centralisation of power was challenged by a seemingly cross-ethnic and cross-communal alliance consisting of the Kurdistan Alliance, led by Masoud Barzani, al-Ahrar (Sadrists), led by Muqtada al-Sadr, and al-Iraqiya, led by Iyad Allawi. Although this ‘no-confidence’ movement failed, it presented a light of cross-ethnic cooperation in terms of electoral politics and non-violent protest. It was noted that the major concern is not just competition across communities, but also within communities in the struggle for power and supremacy.
Working in parallel with the widespread street protests, this year’s provincial elections have proven that citizens can have a voice. In the April provincial elections, Maliki’s ‘consolidation of power’ thesis was questioned as his State of Law Coalition suffered setbacks against their expectations, despite expanding its ranks with two Shi’i allied parties (Fadhila and Badr Corp), particularly among its Shi’i base. A Sadr-Hakim anti-Maliki alliance emerged in the elections. A few months later, elections in Anbar and Ninewah also raised doubts on parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi’s command and sectarian agenda over the Sunni base. Then, in September, in the Kurdistan Region, Barzani’s KDP was short of its expectations, and Jalal Talabani’s PUK suffered a major loss of seats to Nawshirwan Mustafa’s Goran (Change) Party, which is now the second party in the region. These elections, although at a time of increased security incidents and public dissatisfaction, present Iraqis as worried about returning to the militarized version of identity politics that plagued their post-conflict state-building project.
At a regional level, Syria is undergoing a process of cataclysmic disintegration. This has created a refugee crisis in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, and has also exposed a two-faced foreign policy: Baghdad allying with Tehran to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime versus Erbil supporting the Kurdish movement in Syria and calling for the end of Assad’s sovereignty over the region. Throughout the region, the tremors and after-shocks of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ seem to show no signs of abatement, as both post-revolution societies, and those in which no radical change has taken place, wrestle with a wide range of political and social dilemmas stemming from issues of self-definition and self-realisation. Some claim that Iraq was the first domino in the ‘Arab Spring’ pack. Regardless of the (un)likelihood of this line of argument, the experience of Iraq may have important things to teach us with respect to other Arab nations undergoing similar radical social and political upheaval – particularly with non-homogenous populations. Equally, these regional developments raise important questions over Iraq's ability to survive a tough neighbourhood intact.
With these observations in mind, panels considered issues of Nationalism and National Identity, Citizenship and Civil Society, Economic Development and Security and Regional Affairs. In his opening address on day one of the conference, Faik Nerwayi, the Iraqi Ambassador to the UK, noted the many challenges that are faced by contemporary Iraq. Arguing that sectarianism lies at the heart of the problem, he claimed that “in my country every group has a different map and compass that only shows where they want to go” and asked whether any nation could continue to afford such a high rate of fatalities.
Sectarianism occupied a central position in the ensuing panel on Nationalism and National Identity, with Fanar Haddad contending that Iraq, and the region in general, is in the “violent interim between two eras”, in which the “new political elites have been more advocates for Shi'i communities than national politicians” and in which there is “a meritocracy of victimhood”. Finding much common ground, Hayder al-Khoie sketched out the historical and socio-cultural roots of the sectarian divide, on the basis that the oft-heard claim that “sectarian conflict is a modern phenomenon is ahistorical and disingenuous”. This historicist perspective was echoed by Falah Mustafa, who lamented that “we Kurds have the fear of the past, present and future.” Interestingly, Dhia Mohsin al-Hakim outlined the vision of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and hinted that whilst federalism is strongly supported, the party accepts that the Kurdish Region is heading for autonomy.
There was an attempt to move beyond sectarianism during the subsequent panel on Citizenship and Civil Society, beginning with MPs Hayder al-Abadi and Sadiq Rikabi. Abadi accepted that “there is a fear that Iraq will go back to the period of civil war”, but argued that the cause of this was terrorism and stated that “the terrorists have not accomplished their aims so far”. The solution for him was clear; “Iraq needs a strongman.” A counter-position was outlined by Hanaa Edwar, who opined that “it's not just sectarianism, but also tribalism, a totalitarian mentality, an absence of trust and faulty power sharing” that is to blame for the many issues in modern Iraq. For one reason or another, she observed that “many qualified Iraqis play no part in the country's development”. Sadiq Rikabi claimed that “the seeds of corruption were sown in the extremes of poverty during the sanctions era [1990s]” but that Iraq is now developing positively, with a greater degree of freedom of expression than the UK – a claim hotly disputed by Hanaa Edwar, who offered her own experiences of state brutality during protests. However, Edwar did not lay all the blame at the door of the government, observing that Paul Bremer was strongly opposed to quotas for females in parliament. Faleh Jabar noted that the very concept of the citizen is somewhat weak in Iraq, claiming that the idea of citizenship emerged from “Ayatollah Jean Jacques Rousseau.”
Day two started with the panel on Economic Development, with Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman outlining the Kurdistan Region's impressive economic development record and claiming that “within ten years, Kurdistan will be a major provider of Europe's energy”. However, with respect to economic and political ties to Baghdad, she contended that “if Kurdistan has remarried Iraq, then there was no honeymoon and we may already need a counsellor.” Hassan al-Dahan turned the focus back to Baghdad, observing that “political appointments in Iraq are not made of Teflon; they stick.” Based on his experiences in establishing the Baghdad Stock Exchange, he argued that “Iraq needs a sovereign wealth fund in order to join the [regional] club” but concluded optimistically, outlining the positive prospects for Iraq's capital markets and arguing that these may provide the solution to Iraq's economic development. Mark Dempsey argued that Iraq benefited from the Central Bank under Shabibi, stating that still, “as an institution, the Central Bank is the most independent, thanks to Dr Sinan Shabibi”. However, his largely critical presentation highlighted that, “governance is a behavioural culture that must come from the leadership”. Notwithstanding the focus on oil, Rodney Wilson made the observation that the problem for Iraq “is not so much that the oil will run out, but that the world is moving away from oil”. However, he also pointed out that the consumerism beginning to emerge in Baghdad is an alternative to the current rentierism.
The final panel on Security and Regional Affairs started with the pertinent observation by Chair Edward Chaplin that “in the past we feared a strong Iraq, now we fear a weak one.” With this in mind, Falah Mustafa stated that the Kurds would never again permit their own resources to be used against them, and that there are already ample agreements with Baghdad, but what is needed is implementation; “there is no genuine will from Baghdad to solve the country's problems.” However, he was unequivocal on the point that the Kurdish Regional Government would approach diplomatically whoever opens the door. Louise Fawcett contended that “even though weakened, Iraq remains an important part of the regional equation”, not least because “the Iraq war marked the beginning of the end for long-lasting regimes in the region”. Ultimately, “the audit of the Iraq war has not gone away and it has to be a lesson for future possible interventions”. Turning to the reconstruction of Iraq's security services, Toby Dodge noted that “Iraq's own Arab Spring was brutally suppressed”. He documented the extraordinary amounts that have been spent in the rebuilding of the armed forces in Iraq; $24.5 billion by the US alone, with 12% of the workforce (8% of the population) working in defence. The other side of the story is that the majority of Iraqis only enjoys 6-7 hours of electricity per day, despite the billions that have been spent. This notwithstanding, Dodge saw Maliki surviving the 2014 elections and made the interesting observation that “Iraqis are more welcoming to democracy than Brits or Americans, judging by voter turnout – the problem is institutional”.
Despite the observations and questions raised as a prelude to this conference, it is clear that Arab Iraq lives on and that national identity is still strong. This notwithstanding, national identity itself is riven by sectarian, sub-national associations. More positively, it seems that Iraqis still hold a democratic political culture insofar as they believe in elections and elections have an impact. However, this culture has as yet not been institutionalised, and this represents the failure point of democracy in Iraq. This can be seen in the case of keynote speaker Sinan Shabibi, former governor of the Central Bank of Iraq, who struggled over the last decade for independence from executive interference and was eventually forced out.
Turning to the Kurdish question, it is evident that the preliminary stages of the Kurdish divorce from Baghdad are already under way, as the heated debate between Falah Mustafa and Hayder al-Abadi demonstrated. This nascent Kurdish state remains a source of stability and pragmatic diplomacy in a region engulfed in identity politics.
Finally, Iraq still represents a major precedent for understanding regional affairs. Addressing one of our initial questions, namely the claim that Iraq was the first domino in the ‘Arab Spring’ pack, it seems that the Iraq war did indeed mark the beginning of a fundamental change for Arab governance in the Middle East. Moreover, it continues to affect thinking about potential interventions in the region.
Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge, the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, Control Risks and Brehon Advisory. We would also like to thank Mr Richard Greer of Laurel Capital Kingsway for his generous support.
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|9.30 - 10.00||
|10.00 - 10.30||
|10.30 - 11.45||
PANEL 1: NATIONAL IDENTITY AND SECTARIANISM
Chair: Noel Guckian (Former UK Ambassador)
|11.45 - 12.15||
|12.15 - 13.15||
|13.15 - 14.30||
|14.30 - 15.45||
PANEL 2: CITIZENSHIP AND CIVIL SOCIETY
Chair: George Joffe (University of Cambridge)
|15.45 - 16.15||
|16.15 - 17.15||
Intelligence Seminar at Corpus Christi College
|10.00 - 11.15||
PANEL 3: ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Chair: Sinan Shabibi (Former Governor of the Central Bank of Iraq)
|11.15 - 11.45||
|11.45 - 12.45||
|12.45 - 14.00||
|14.00 - 15.15||
PANEL 4: SECURITY AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS
Chair: Edward Chaplin (Former UK Ambassador)
|15.15 - 16.15||
|16.15 - 16.45||
|16.45 - 17.45||
Chair: Sir William Patey (Former Ambassador to the UK)
|17.45 - 18.00||
To download the conference booklet, please click here