On September 10, 2014 the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion focusing on the current crisis in Iraq as well as prospective approaches to bringing it to an end. The panel featured Nikolay Mladenov, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative for Iraq and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI); Luay Al-Khatteeb, a visiting fellow at the BDC; and Alaa Makki, vice-chairman of the education committee at the Iraqi Council of Representatives. Salman Shaikh, director of the BDC, moderated the discussion, which was attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, and media community. Each speaker reflected upon the circumstances that have brought Iraq to the brink of one of the nation’s most serious political and security crises, as well as strategies to confront this challenge.
The discussion began by addressing the weaknesses of the political process in Iraq, particularly given the threat posed by the rapid advances of the Islamic State (IS) this past summer. In the view of Mladenov, the recently formed Iraqi government presented a key advance on its predecessors by including more or less the entire political spectrum represented in the Iraqi parliament, as well as the various communities present in the country. Still, he emphasized the need for the new government to demonstrate its commitment to inclusivity by addressing the various concerns and demands of Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups and further including their perspectives in the decision-making process. In his view, many subsidiary groups that support IS could then be “peeled away” by building support for legitimate state institutions.
Building on this point, Makki underscored the perceived marginalization of Sunni groups in Iraq’s political process, holding that most Sunni political representation since 2003 had been largely “symbolic.” Additionally, he warned that the failure to effectively confront IS was furthering this marginalization by cutting off many Sunni communities from any hope of representation in Baghdad, either by displacement or being taken over by IS.
Khatteeb, however, cautioned against viewing a lack of inclusivity as the main reason behind Iraq’s political weaknesses. “Every single administration post-2003 was inclusive,” he stated. “And any future administration… will continue to be inclusive. The question is how accountable these governments are.” He held that Iraq’s continued political instability still owed much to the twin legacies of de-ba’athification and the dismantling of the Iraqi army under the U.S. occupation, compounded by the competing policies of the six countries that neighbor Iraq.
In his view, this lack of accountability had undermined the ability of the government to truly represent all areas of the country. “Iraq has been functioning not as a federal state…but as a central state,” Khatteeb stated. He stressed the need for greater legislative reform in Iraq, beginning with the establishment of an independent judiciary and providing for the equitable distribution of oil revenues among the country’s various regions.
Still, while emphasizing the need for longer-term political reform in the country, the participants stressed that this would only be part of a strategy that would also include security and military elements. Mladenov, while noting the need to resolve outstanding issues between the federal government Baghdad and Kurdish regional authorities, stressed the importance of establishing Iraqi security and armed forces that were representative of the country at large and that were motivated to defend the country as a whole. To this end, he offered support to the Iraqi government’s recent proposal to form a national guard, which would allow different regions of the country to provide for their own security.
Makki likewise viewed improving the country’s security situation as critical to encouraging greater Sunni buy-in to the political process. “The real problem now is the security problem,” he stated. He argued that the collapse of Iraq’s army in the face of IS forces had convinced many Sunni communities that there was no alternative save to join with IS in order to survive, and stated that the displacement and effective occupation brought about by IS was undermining people’s attachment to Iraq itself.
The other participants continued to note the importance of reinforcing an Iraqi “national identity” in the face of threats of sectarian violence. For Khatteeb, this renewed sense of national identity formed the cornerstone of accountability in governance, ensuring that all citizens and representatives worked toward supporting the activities of a united, stronger Iraq. Later, in response to a question from the audience, Khatteeb connected this issue to role of the armed forces in confronting IS, arguing that key advances by national military units would be “a step toward restoring the national identity.”
In the same vein, Mladenov highlighted the importance of a “civic” identity that transcended various religious and ethnic affiliations. While he acknowledged that many of Iraq’s current political parties draw much of their support from such affiliations, he stressed the need to bridge differences between various communities. He suggested acknowledging the legitimate demands for greater political representation and development by all communities, not just Sunni areas, as a key step forward in building this consensus.
In discussing the current crisis facing Iraq, participants also pointed to the need for greater regional engagement. Mladenov, for one, spoke of the sense that Iraq’s government had “disengaged” with key neighboring states, particularly in the Gulf, and urged Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to make regional cooperation a particular focus for his new administration. Khatteeb also highlighted transnational flows of illicitly produced oil and potential jihadis, particularly across Turkey’s southern border. He stressed the need for regional countries to rigorously enforce the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 2170, which called on member states to suppress the flow of financing and manpower to Islamic extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.
Following on this, participants discussed the potential for international involvement in the conflict. Mladenov pointed to the potential for countries from NATO and the EU to provide training and capacity-building exercises to the country’s armed and security forces, yet acknowledged that air strikes on IS positions by Iraq’s allies formed a “key component” of international support to the Iraqi government. Still, he emphasized that any such operations needed to be “extremely well calibrated” against key aspects of IS infrastructure in order to avoid any collateral damage among Iraq’s civilian population. He also stressed the need to resolve the Syrian crisis as a key step towards addressing political instability in Iraq.
In commenting on this issue, Makki expressed concerns that air strikes alone would not be enough to defeat IS, referring to previous actions to confront al-Qaeda in Iraq to suggest the involvement of U.S. ground forces. When asked to comment on further U.S. involvement by a member of the audience, though, Mladenov cautioned that the Iraqi government would have to request such support explicitly. “All efforts must be led in Iraq and from within, with all the international support they may need”, he added.