Reconciliation Strategies in Iraq

September 1, 2008
David Steele

A window of opportunity now exists for post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq. In this Special Report, senior reconstruction facilitator David Steele—who has worked on the ground for three years with Iraqis and Provincial Reconstruction Teams—examines effective processes of relationship building and dispute resolution.


  • A window of opportunity now exists for post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq despite the resurgence of violence in the spring of 2008. The creation of Sunni Awakening Councils, the ongoing presence of sufficient U.S. troops, and the decrease in combat activity by the Mahdi Army provide a real, though tenuous, opportunity to continue building on the gains of the past year.
  • In all societies emerging from conflict, reconciliation efforts are the glue that holds the post-conflict reconstruction process together. Reconciliation must be pursued not only on national but also on local levels and not only in the political but also in the social domain. At all points within a society, people and groups must be encouraged to work together constructively for the common good.
  • Reconciliation in Iraq must be approached with sensitivity to its shame-oriented culture, which emphasizes community, authority, honor, and hospitality. Reconciliation must also be approached with an awareness of the importance of primary identity markers—religion, ethnicity, tribe, and family—and the possibilities for creating bonds based on secondary markers—class, profession, internally displaced persons (IDP) status, and so forth.
  • Moving toward reconciliation in the context of severe and widespread violence requires that special attention be given to steps one can take to break the pattern of revenge and transform relationships. These steps include mourning, confronting fears, identifying needs, acknowledging responsibility, envisioning restorative and operational justice, and choosing to forgive.
  • When good groundwork has been laid in relationship building, then groups in conflict are better able to engage in constructive dispute resolution. Seven elements form the basis for this process of negotiation or problem solving: identifying interests, alternatives, options, and criteria, and working on relationships, communication, and commitments.
  • Internationals need to develop programming that focuses on process, rather than substance, to train and equip local Iraqis to be more effective mediators and facilitators. This programming should include conflict assessment, psychosocial and spiritual healing, conflict resolution training, facilitated dialogue, and problem solving.

About the Report

This report, which is a shortened version of an unpublished working paper written for the United States Institute of Peace in May 2007, examines effective processes of relationship building and dispute resolution, drawing upon the author’s three years of experience working with Iraqis. Informed by both Islamic and tribal customs, the report presents a series of steps for breaking out of a cycle of revenge. It also presents elements of an effective negotiation process with illustrations of successful dispute resolution facilitated by trained Iraqis.

David Steele is a program officer in the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations at the United States Institute of Peace. He serves as senior reconciliation facilitator working to support Provincial Reconstruction Teams on the ground in Iraq. Previously, he has worked as a fellow in the Program on Preventive Diplomacy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as program manager and interim executive director of the Conflict Management Group, as a program manager in conflict management at Mercy Corps, and as an independent consultant in conflict transformation.

September 1, 2008