Iraq is beginning to stabilize after its military victory against ISIS, but international assistance—without political meddling—remains badly needed to rebuild its economy and social fabric, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament, Mohamed al-Halbousi, said.
Halbousi, the former governor of Anbar province, said the need for the international community’s cooperation and support goes beyond reconstruction of urban areas liberated from ISIS. It is also necessary to ensure services and security—the keys to stabilization—as well as to build peace through protecting minorities and returning people displaced by the war to their homes, he said. Halbousi, who was elected speaker on September 15, expressed disappointment that some countries have failed to honor aid commitments made at a donors’ conference in Kuwait last year.
“We are in a race with time to rehabilitate these families, get them home, and reintegrate them into society,” Halbousi said. “Leaving them in camps for an indefinite time will have negative consequences for us and our friends.”
Halbousi spoke at the U.S. Institute of Peace amid a whirlwind of meetings in Washington that included talks with Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan. He said the officials he’d met during a five-day visit were all in accord that the U.S. should help Iraq with foreign investment and reconstruction while seeming committed to continuing military support to “finish off the extremists.” Behind the talks lies growing U.S. concern with Iran’s expanding influence in Iraq and a rising push among pro-Iranian lawmakers to expel U.S. troops from the country.
“Liberating areas from ISIS does not mean we have defeated extremist ideology,” Halbousi said. “We need continuous support from the U.S. and the international community. The president, the prime minister, the whole government is united to work with our partners in the international coalition to defeat this extremist organization once and for all.”
While the territorial Islamic State may be gone, its fighters have returned to work as gangs engaging in assassinations and small-scale attacks. Combatting them will require new strategies that rely on intelligence gathering and police work, he said.
Role for Reconciliation
USIP President Nancy Lindborg, who moderated the discussion with Halbousi, asked about the role of reconciliation in preventing any resurgence of the extremist group.
Halbousi said communal reconciliation was critical to rebuilding Iraq and must proceed on two tracks: upwards from communities and downwards from political leaders and parties.
In areas occupied by ISIS, for example, local governments have been able to persuade residents to agree to the return of families where a single member joined the extremists on the condition they break of contact with those individuals.
In areas of mixed populations where massacres and group expulsions took place, including the Ninewa Plain, Sinjar, Diyala, and northern Babel, reconciliation that restores communities will require top level financial and political support from the international community, he said. Iraqi officials have estimated reconstruction costs at $88 billion.
IDP camps present a particular concern, Halbousi said, and make urgent the task for community reconciliation and restoration.
“There are tens of thousands of Iraqi people in these camps including Christians and Yazidis,” he said. “The human and social conditions for these citizens are difficult. They will be vulnerable to extremist ideas.”
The subject of Iran-Iraq relations came up repeatedly during Halbousi’s appearance.
Without citing Iran specifically or its growing tensions with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, Halbousi said Iraq confronts increasingly complicated problems in the region. The government’s aim is an “Iraq First” strategy that will hopefully isolate the country from entanglement in other nations’ disputes, he said in prepared remarks. Overlapping interests should not be confused with intervention, he said.
“We reject guardianship, hegemony and external intervention in all its forms,” he said. “But we are dealing with the overlap in the conflict in the region. Our international alliances will be more economic than political due to our urgent need.”
Most of the region’s countries, including Iran, have interfered for their own interests and hindered Iraq’s progress. Full sovereignty means, for example, that Iraq’s relations with the U.S. are not affected by “people in a country bordering Iraq.”
“A powerful Iraq will contribute to stability of the region, including Iran,” Halbousi said. “It is not in our interest to put them in conflict with each other.”
Future of PMF
Asked about concerns the Popular Mobilization Forces’ (PMF) ties to Iran could undermine the Iraqi state, Halbousi said it is a political, not a security, problem. PMF volunteers answered the highest religious fatwa in Iraq to fight ISIS, he noted. The PMF are legally under the control of the Armed Forces and the government has been working to provide a “legal and formal framework for those who fought alongside the army and security forces.” It is also seeking to control the spread and display of weapons.
Halbousi was also asked if he expected the U.S. to continue granting Iraq a sanctions waiver so it can import electricity from Iran.
“We have a 1,400-kilometer border with Iran so our situation is different from any other country,” he said. “Unfortunately, we still have not stood up economically. We import I think 30 percent of our energy from Iran. What is the alternative? Maybe we can address it in another three years or so.” He added that he opposes all sanctions.
Halbousi addressed a number of other important issues to Iraq today during his hour-long appearance:
On sectarianism: “There is no longer any sectarian threat in Iraq. All Iraqi citizens feel that they belong to each other and have irrevocably left behind sectarian issues. There are some political parties and personalities that will try to ride sectarian waves for electoral gain but [the] Iraqi people do not trust these parties anymore.”
On relations between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government:“No one denies that there are still problems, but I believe these problems have reached a minimal level. The relationship between the region and Baghdad is witnessing a remarkable development through communication between the leadership of the region and the Iraqi government. There has been an agreement on a set of solutions” regarding budget allocations and administration of disputed areas. “The biggest problem is oil and the clear difference in contracts. We will have to negotiate in the next phase and both sides will have to compromise.”
On dealing with ex-ISIS fighters: “From the defeat of ISIS, one positive thing emerged: ISIS united the Iraqis. This is a new era where civic equality is what matters most. We don’t have to go back to square zero. Any militant who hurt Iraqis directly or indirectly will face justice in Iraq under the Terrorism Act. Western nationals will be taken care of by their own countries. Everyone knows how to bring them back.”
On addressing corruption: “Iraq is trying to attract international companies—particularly the biggest, strongest companies in the U.S. … We have a clear vision for the fight against corruption that will begin with an important legislative package during the coming period. The executive branch is determined to start this project away from political courtesies. The Iraqi citizens will side with the state to face this disease that moves within the community. [The] Iraqi state will not hesitate to bring to justice all persons involved in corruption retroactively” to 2003. “All findings will be revealed to the Iraqi public clearly. I believe this year will see a real beginning to combat corruption in Iraq.”