An international conference opens in Kuwait Monday to plan ways to rebuild Iraq and secure it against renewed extremist violence following the three-year war against ISIS. A USIP team just spent nine days in Iraq for talks with government and civil society leaders, part of the Institute’s years-long effort to help the country stabilize. The Kuwait conference will gather government, business and civil society leaders to consider a reconstruction that Iraq has said could cost $100 billion. USIP’s president, Nancy Lindborg, and Middle East program director, Sarhang Hamasaeed, say any realistic rebuilding plan must focus also on the divisions and grievances in Iraq that led to ISIS’ violence and that still exist.

Iraqis return to their destroyed homes in the Old City of Mosul, in December 2017.
Iraqis return to their destroyed homes in the Old City of Mosul, in December 2017. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

This week’s meeting, the Kuwait International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq, will draw more than 2,000 participants, including a U.S. delegation headed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

What exactly will happen at this conference?

Lindborg: The overriding goal is to see substantial commitments to reconstruct Iraq’s destroyed bridges, hospitals, schools and homes. Unlike most donor conferences, however, this one will emphasize generating commitments from the private sector.  What is less emphasized, but vitally important, is the need to rebuild the devastated social fabric. This includes restoring the shattered trust within and among various communities as well as with government. In response to calls from international organizations and experts, conference organizers included some discussion on the need for justice and reconciliation, which is a good step. But for the impact of the hoped-for investments to be sustained, Iraq must come to terms with simmering, unresolved grievances and deep societal wounds that, left unaddressed, could generate another round of extremism and sectarian violence.

Hamasaeed: Kuwait is hosting this conference 28 years after Iraq’s Saddam Hussain regime invaded and tried to annex Kuwait. So Kuwaiti support for Iraq’s recovery illustrates how far the countries’ relationship has healed. That’s an important step in reintegrating Iraq with the regional and international communities. Iraq and other nations hope that the six [Arab] Gulf Cooperation Council countries, which include Kuwait, will share the burden of financing Iraq’s rebuilding. That would aid Iraq’s reconciliation with the Arab Gulf countries, which many diplomats and experts think is necessary for the country’s recovery and for reducing its vulnerability to influence by Iran.

Why is reconciliation critical to consider along with reconstruction?

Hamasaeed: Iraq is a patchwork of communities—Sunni and Shia Muslims, ethnic Kurds, and smaller religious minorities such as Christians and Yazidis. In areas where conflicts became violent in the past, and where the risk is high now, community-level dialogues led by Iraqis themselves have been very cost-effective ways of preventing bloodshed. USIP has been supporting these dialogues, which produced local peace accords in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, and in the areas of Tikrit and Hawija. Other dialogue projects are underway near Mosul, in Tal Afar and on the Nineveh Plain. The Tikrit agreement alone enabled 390,000 displaced people to return home, restoring normal economic activity to that area.

School in Hamdaniya
A school in the Hamdaniya District

This ability to help people go home is critical. More than 2.4 million Iraqis are still displaced nationwide. So these community-level dialogues, and their role in letting displaced people return home, give the international community a double incentive to support such reconciliation efforts. Reconciliation reduces the costs of humanitarian aid and military campaigns, and it reduces the risk that displaced Iraqis might become international refugees, adding to the enormous refugee burdens that already face Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and other countries.

Given that you’ve just been meeting Iraqi government, military and civil society leaders, what are they saying about the need for reconciliation work now?

Lindborg: Preventing revenge violence and renewed conflict remains a principal concern of Iraqi government officials, who have created a new High Committee for Coexistence and Communal Peace. We heard the same concern from Lieutenant General [Paul] Funk, the commander of coalition forces, from U.N. officials, and especially from those Iraqi tribal and community leaders who are seeing their citizens return home to confront the rubble of their villages and the tatters of their communities.

Nancy Lindborg, Stephen J. Hadley, Sarhang Hamasaeed and Osama Gharizi meet with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, February 8, 2018
Nancy Lindborg, Stephen J. Hadley, Sarhang Hamasaeed and Osama Gharizi meet with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, February 8, 2018

We met tribal sheikhs from Hawija, southwest of Kirkuk. They emphasized the importance of an agreement they reached after a year of mediation conducted by USIP and our Iraqi partners, Sanad for Peacebuilding and the Network of Iraqi Facilitators. Together, the sheikhs from Hawija created a roadmap for using dialogue to resolve differences. They agreed to seek justice through the rule of law instead of through tribal traditions that hold a whole tribe responsible for the crimes of its members. The leaders told us that many of their people had seen unspeakable things. They have lost everything and still hold hate in their hearts, but the sheikhs have managed to resolve issues without violence thus far.

There is special urgency for reconciliation on the Nineveh Plains, near Mosul. Iraq’s minority groups form a historical mosaic of peoples in that area—including Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and others. USIP has been supporting the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities, which comprises 20 organizations advancing the rights of nine minority groups. Leaders in the alliance are courageously trying to create bridges within and among these groups, which are marginalized by the larger Kurdish, Sunni and Shia blocs and also fractured among themselves after the terrorizing occupation of ISIS. Amid the rubble and insecurity, they understand the urgent need for peaceful coexistence and importance of acting together to help their communities return home, increase their access to justice, rights and representation in government.

Iraq will hold national elections in May. What should we expect?

Lindborg: As we talked with government officials, civil society, tribal and religious leaders, two narratives emerged: the first was hope for elections in which the politicians respond to a growing sense of a new Iraqi identity and a public demand for a less-sectarian, more inclusive and accountable government. One tribal leader told us, “We have been bitten by the snake twice now,” by which he meant the extremist uprisings of al-Qaida and then ISIS. “The Iraqi people are smarter than that. We will vote for the right people this time,” he said.

USIP and Sanad staff, tribal sheikhs, and the Network of Iraqi Facilitators—together they brokered an agreement in Hawija to resolve disputes without violence and rebuild social fabric in communities ravaged by ISIS
USIP and Sanad staff, tribal sheikhs, and the Network of Iraqi Facilitators—together they brokered an agreement in Hawija to resolve disputes without violence and rebuild social fabric in communities ravaged by ISIS

The second narrative is that people are deeply cynical about their government and the widespread corruption. They don’t expect the elections to change anything and don’t see how to make a difference, expecting that voters and politicians will revert to being deeply sectarian. Many are concerned that in the Nineveh Plains in particular, the displacement of many voters will increase the risks of stolen or fraudulent votes. However, almost everyone we asked affirmed they would indeed vote. Following the defeat of ISIS, there is potential for Iraqi leadership to step forward with a new, inclusive vision for their country. But that outcome is unclear. As one observer told us, “These are real elections, so we don’t know how it will go.”

Hamasaeed: After Iraq’s declaration of military victory over ISIS, people’s energy is shifting toward the political space, specifically the elections. Fair elections are important—and even more so is the fundamental question whether a new government can govern effectively and address the Iraqis’ needs for jobs, services and security. It will have to do so while negotiating the competing demands for decentralization or autonomy raised by Kurds, Sunni Arabs and minority groups. Iraq’s new government will have to deliver on these grievances, or people will lose faith in the political process. If they do, some will again be willing to listen to radical ideas—and that could open the way for the resurgence of an ISIS version 2.0 or other communal infighting.

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