On September 9, 2013, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a policy discussion with Falah al-Nakib, Former Minister of Interior of the Republic of Iraq; Nisar Talabany, Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG); and Ali al-Dabbagh, Former Government Spokesman of the Republic of Iraq. The discussion, moderated by Brookings Doha Center Director Salman Shaikh, focused on the prospects for political progress and domestic stability in Iraq in a time of rising internal and regional violence. In a wide ranging discussion, the panelists discussed issues of political reconciliation, economic improvement, institution building, and regional turmoil. They discussed their hopes for Iraq’s future, problems with the current government’s policies, and the role of Iraq in the broader Middle East.
Nearly two years have passed since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and violence has escalated dramatically in recent months. The conflict in Syria threatens to create further turmoil in Iraq, and the prospects for political reconciliation between Iraq’s leaders seem limited. The panel of experts all agreed that Iraq needed major political reform to achieve domestic stability and reduce violence, and that this domestic stability was critical for Iraq to play a constructive regional role.
Falah al-Nakib attributed the current rise in violence to political failures. Stopping the violence required a political solution, he said, but none seem to be forthcoming. Ali al-Dabbagh also emphasized the political roots of the violence. He stressed that the Iraqi populace was not as sectarian in its thinking as the government, pointing out that 25 percent of marriages in Iraq were inter-sectarian. Rather the sectarian violence arose from the political crisis between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and political parties – primarily Sunni parties in western Iraq. He described this dispute as “crisis of confidence” between Iraq’s political leaders. Al-Dabbagh emphasized these political problems prevented Iraq from taking advantage of its great reserve of material and human resources.
Nisar Talabany emphasized that there was a region of Iraq that was prosperous and peaceful. She pointed to the success of Iraqi Kurdistan in building a stable government that attracted internal migration. She attributed this success to the KRG’s “true application of the human rights principles of the Iraqi constitution,” such as respect for religious freedom and openness to dialogue. She emphasized that Kurds could be part of the solution in Iraq, pointing to the open dialogue between KRG President Masoud Barzani and Prime Minister al-Maliki.
In discussing why political reconciliation had not occurred in Iraq, al-Nakib pointed to the failures of the American leadership and the Maliki government. American decisions to disband the Iraqi Army and go through a de-Baathification process, he said, had “alienated people who could have played a constructive role.” He argued too that the Maliki government had monopolized power, suggesting the government’s exclusion of other parties had sparked extremism. Al-Nakib suggested that the repeated failures of reconciliation talks led him to be skeptical of any political progress before the upcoming Iraqi elections.
Al-Dabbagh discussed the failure of government to deliver essential services and called for an increased role for the private sector in developing Iraq. Looking at the number of Iraqis lacking clean water, electricity, and employment, he pointed to the failure of the Iraqi government to credibly fulfill its promises. He described a lack of planning or administrative capacity in Iraqi government ministries, adding that the only foreseeable solution to these issues was a change of government in upcoming parliamentary elections. He suggested that Iraq should look to the success of Kurdistan in the privatization of certain services. Al-Dabbagh argued that privatization in areas such as electricity and sanitation could help solve the crises in these industries.
Talabany again contrasted the broader Iraqi experience with the successes in Iraqi Kurdistan. Five years ago the KRG government had been able to provide only up to four hours of electricity per day; it was now providing nearly twenty hours, she said. Talabany suggested that the federalized model of Iraqi Kurdistan could provide important lessons for other parts of the country. Federalism, she argued, could help resolve the problems in services and reduce unemployment, which could in turn help to resolve issues of terrorism. When discussing federalism, she emphasized the Kurds’ strong belief in the right of self-determination. In response to a question on whether the KRG considered itself part of Iraq, she stated that it did and emphasized that both the government and opposition considered the Kurds a unifying force. “As long as the constitution is respected, and democracy and religious freedom are respected, we would like to remain in Iraq,” she said.
In a discussion of Syria, the panelists were united in their opposition to American airstrikes. Al-Nakib questioned whether Syria could remain cohesive after a strike, and did not see a credible alternative leadership from the opposition. Al-Dabbagh also pointed to the chaos a strike would unleash, and the potential danger this had for Iraq. “You can use one matchstick to light a huge fire,” he warned. Al-Dabbagh strongly criticized American leadership, claiming that the United States lacked a clear strategy and suffered from a blinkered view of the world. Talabany reminded the audience that Kurds were especially sensitive to the issue of chemical weapons, having suffered chemical attacks under Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, she argued, a strike without a UN Security Council resolution would be a mistake, and risked exacerbating the refugee problem, already a major issue in Iraqi Kurdistan. She called on Washington to further explore diplomatic solutions in Syria.
During a Q&A session, the panelists agreed that rising oil revenues would not solve Iraq’s problems. Without political reconciliation and governance reforms, the revenues might be wasted or provoke further fighting. When challenged on their position on Syria by Khaled Hroub of Northwestern University, the panelists emphasized their sympathy for Syrian suffering , but also the dangers of a strike with unclear goals. In discussing the Iranian role in the crisis, al-Nakib said Iran’s success was a result of its status as the only country in the region with a clear strategy. Al-Dabbagh suggested the United States had failed to learn from the mistakes of the past, as its interventions in Iraq and Libya brought greater chaos in those countries and the region.
The end of the discussion focused on Iraq’s regional role and the difficulty of Baghdad had experienced in playing a constructive role at this time. Al-Dabbagh said Iraq strove build good relations with all countries from Iran to the United States. He critiqued, however, the failure of Iraq to build good relations with the GCC countries. He also suggested the United States had not managed its relationship with Iraq well, stating the relationship had not shifted from military support to capacity building. When asked if Prime Minister Maliki had moved away from the Arab states, al-Nakib said “there was no doubt about it,” adding that Iraq’s regional isolation left it vulnerable to further sectarian divisions.