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Is becoming a sustainable state an intractable problem for Iraq?

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Iraq’s ability to become a sustainable state has been accused of being intractable; a problem for which no solution exists. As ISIS lost its last stronghold in Syria, guerrilla cells have begun cropping up in Iraq, and controversy is growing about Iraq’s need for foreign forces, especially US ones.

The country has a long history of instability, placed historically in a state of chronic sectarianism. Iraq as a state was fashioned from three pre-existing Ottoman provinces after World War I, combining three different regions that had no shared history; the Sunni Arab centre around Baghdad; a majority Shi’a south; and the Kurdish north. Also troublesome for Iraq are its neighbouring countries. To the south lies a suspicious Saudi Arabia, ruled by the ultra-conservative Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. Given the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the Kingdom’s fear of rising Shi’ite political parties in Iraq, tensions remain despite a reported thaw in relations. To the east lies Iran, a region that has repeatedly resorted to terrorism and subversion as a way of expanding its Shi’ite power into Iraq. In September 2018, Iraqi citizens set the Iranian embassy on fire as part of a protests against the foreign power becoming too influential in domestic politics.

This instability has been further exacerbated following foreign intervention, in particular the 2003 coalition invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. Renad Mansour wrote that the coalition aimed to ‘bring about regime change… not to change the state per se’; a deliberate displacement of the politics and security of the country by removing the leadership and disbanding the army. But Iraq as a whole collapsed and the coalition found itself mired in the far more complex mission of state-building. David Kilcullen described the situation post-invasion as looking ‘increasingly like Humpty Dumpty’; Iraq became a shattered state embroiled in violence, with no functioning economy and a devastated society.


As a result, the Iraqi government has evolved into many forms, with tyranny and dictatorship turning into a federal parliamentary representative democratic republic. The current political situation within Iraq today means that being Iraq’s Prime Minister involves dealing with a geographic state that does not control its own borders, fighting ISIS, preventing proxy wars by regional and international powers, tackling corruption and much more.

Iraq’s former Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, made great efforts to tackle some of these issues. He made trips to Egypt, Jordan and Turkey to discuss regional strategies, and approval ratings in Sunni-majority areas were at historically high levels for a Shi’a Prime Minister; Abadi was perhaps the only politician able to visit every Iraqi city and receive a warm welcome. However, most of Abadi’s political focus was spent repairing the damage caused by his predecessor. Between 2006 and 2013, Iraq’s leadership was left in the hands of Nouri al-Malaki, whom ran a ‘pro-Shi’a regime, refused to make concessions to the Sunnis, and used the language of national reconciliation without doing anything to give it substance’. Consequently, many Sunni constituents were convinced that peaceful politics would never work, and that armed struggle was the only route to survival, causing internal sectarian tensions.

Following the 2018 national and provincial elections, Iraq still has a long way to go in order to achieve political reconstruction. Five months after the national elections were held, in which no party won an outright majority, Barham Salih was elected into the largely ceremonial Presidential post in October 2018, in-turn appointing Adil Abdul-Mahdi as Prime Minister. Mahdi’s agenda for the next four years includes ambitious policies to develop the country, resolve strained ties, boost the economy and restore peace and stability.

One issue jeopardising Iraq’s sustainable future is the continued desire for independence from the Kurdish. A non-binding referendum was held in the Kurdish regions of Iraq on 25 September 2017. According to the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of independence from Iraq. The Kurdish leadership’s goal of independence is well-known; Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish villages in 1988, violently put down a Kurdish uprising after the 1991 Gulf War, and the Kurdish voted in a non-binding referendum for independence previously in 2005. However, by the end of 2018, dreams of Kurdish independence appeared to be in tatters once more following Baghdad’s invasion of Kirkuk, which is claimed by both the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG]. Nevertheless, Kurds in the four traditionally distinct parts of Kurdistan (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey) are collaborating with one another across national boundaries to a greater extent than at any previous point in history. Even if there are significant barriers to this unity, the Kurdish national awakening has begun, declared Henri J. Barkey, raising questions over Iraq’s territorial integrity.

Mahdi must engage in serious dialogue to bring the Kurds back in good faith with Iraq.

Moreover, the endemic absence of security in Iraq has to-date undermined all efforts of the Iraqi government to create a sustainable state. It was ISIS’ successful invasion of Iraq in 2014, capturing Falluja, Ramadi, and Mosul, which dragged the world’s attention back to Iraq. Kilcullen declared that the situation Malaki created within Iraq meant that ‘this corrupt and demoralised force collapsed like a rotten out-house as soon as ISIS gave it a solid shove’. It is a source of humiliation for the Iraqi State that the US-built Iraqi army completely capitulated against a relatively small group of ISIS fighters; the Iraqi army clearly lacked the capability to secure the region. As a result of the Iraqi army ‘retreating when it could, getting slaughtered when it couldn’t’, as described by Kilcullen, the US stepped in once-again with a new intervention in 2014, under the guise of “military advisors”, to re-train and support the Iraqi army in recapturing the lost territory.

The recent recapture of the last areas under ISIS control along the border with Syria is a major step towards general security for Iraq as per a sustainable state, but there are two issues to consider. Firstly, Iraq did not achieve this result on its own. The US was the main force involved in the retrieval of Iraq’s lost land, but in a deal that traded Iraqi blood for US capitol; using Iraqi forces as proxy fighters to run ISIS out of the region in the form of no-questions-asked close-air support. President Barack Obama stated in 2014 that ‘we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves’. However, Obama described a situation where America conducted ‘more than 150 successful airstrikes in Iraq’ which in-turn ‘killed ISIL fighters, destroyed weapons, and given space for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to reclaim key territory’. This support can only be seen as a way to stop the Iraqis abandoning post again, as opposed to helping create a capable Iraqi force that can maintain Iraq’s security itself.

Secondly, and equally detrimental to Iraq’s future sustainability as a state, ISIS will not retreat easily. Although President Donald Trump has declared ISIS’ defeat, their ideological influence still exists and they will more likely devolve into a guerrilla force.

Unless Iraq is able to maintain its pressure on the organisation, ISIS will become resurgent.

General Joseph Votel stated that taking away ‘the terrain from ISIS doesn’t mean that ISIS has gone’. In 2011 when US forces withdrew from Iraq, ISIS’ predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq), was down to 700 fighters. But it took less than three years for them to exploit sectarian tensions, the internal Iraqi conflict, and the power vacuums created in the Middle East, to grow in size and capability.

Iraq’s future is heavily reliant on creating a structure of governance that all Iraqis — Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurd – feel serves their interests and establishing an independent army that can ensure them all security. These factors are clearly interlinked; ISIS’ ability to return and jeopardise Iraq’s general security will depend on the level of support they receive from Iraq’s Sunni community, which in turn is likely determined by the course of politics.

Iraq will forever be sectarian because of its origin. But sectarian sentiments are not static; rather they ebb and flow according to sectarian identity as dictated by wider circumstances. Only when a state is seen to adopt the symbolisms of one sect over another will sectarian identity gain momentum and prohibit Iraq from becoming a sustainable state.

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