Live from Baghdad as Iraqis celebrate the one-year anniversary of the fall of ISIS, Elie Abouaoun says that there is a sense of relief in the country over the terrorist group’s defeat and that elections happened this year. To maintain this positive momentum, adds Abouaoun, Iraq’s infrastructure must be rebuilt, and measures should be taken to reinforce social cohesion at the local level.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley (host):    In 2014, in the summer, ISIS militants conquered a third of the territory in Iraq, even threatening the capitol of Baghdad. The biggest Iraqi city conquered by the group was Mosul. A year ago, Iraq celebrated the fact that they were gone, and as a matter of fact, recently had a national holiday to celebrate the fact that it was a year ago that ISIS was out of Iraq. Are they really, and are they still a threat or not a threat, and are they a threat still in the region? We are pleased that this morning we can connect with Dr. Elie Abouaoun, who is the Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs for the United States Institute of Peace, based in Tunis. He's been in Baghdad this week, is tweeting @elie022.

Dr. Elie Abouaoun, welcome to POTUS. Thank you for being here.

Dr. Elie Abouaoun:    Yeah, thank you for hosting me. Good morning.

Tim Farley:    What can you tell us about the difference in Baghdad today compared to a year ago?

Dr. Elie Abouaoun:    Well, today, Baghdad lives a sense of relief, not only because of the victory over ISIS, the liberation of Mosul, but also because of having had election in the summer, and now almost forming a government. With some missing ministers, though. But you see that there is a great momentum in Baghdad, whether security wise, at the economic level, politically, et cetera, which is great, of course. However, what we are trying to highlight during our visit is that all these gains need to be sustained by some additional measures, that reinforce social cohesion at the community level.

Tim Farley:    The word "rebuild" means so many different things in a place like Iraq, which, is obviously a war-torn country. Part of it means getting the power plants once again producing electricity for people who need to get electricity. It means running water for individuals. Let's talk about that aspect, first. The physical rebuilding of Iraq. Where is it now on that scale, whether or not people are satisfied with the efforts of the government to make sure, if you'll pardon my using the metaphor, the trains are running on time?

Dr. Elie Abouaoun:    Yeah. Well, obviously, the people are not satisfied with the speed with which the construction of the infrastructure, the construction is going on. It’s been slow for different reasons. One of them is the availability of funding, or the lack of, as well as the slow bureaucratic procedures in Iraq, and the fact that some areas are not still fully secured.

But also, you need to look at the scope of the needs, in terms of infrastructure.The infrastructure of Iraq was not only destroyed in the last few years. It's been crippled since the early 90s, and since then, there was no serious effort to rebuild the infrastructure in a way that takes into account the demographic expansion and the economic factors.

So it feels slow, definitely, and people are frustrated, but again, this is not the aspect that worries us the most. The aspect that worries us the most is how much there is investment in social cohesion initiatives. This is what's going to sustain the gains.

Tim Farley:    To what extent do you believe the United States should be involved in supporting again this ... I want to get to some of those other efforts. The social cohesion. But to what extent should the United States be involved either in investment or participation in the physical rebuilding of Iraq. As you mentioned, a lot of it started years ago. The last couple of years with ISIS brought its own toll, but where should the U.S. stand on this, and would any assistance be welcome at this point?

Dr. Elie Abouaoun:    Yes. Well, the forms through which the United States can be involved in Iraq are not only for direct assistance. I think there are a number of countries who are contributing to funds to reconstruct Iraq, but I think the United States has some aspects of technical assistance that is crucially needed in Iraq. Whether it's in terms of assistance to the security forces, or in reconstruction, or technology, or other aspects.

So there is a huge role for the United States to play in Iraq, but I don't see it as necessarily going only through the bilateral direct assistance channel. There are also private sector, and there are also wins for the U.S. private sector to come and invest money here. There is the aspect of education, technology, as I mentioned before, banking and finance, et cetera. So several aspects where U.S. knowledge, expertise, and human capital can play an important role.

Tim Farley:    Dr. Elie Abouaoun is with us, Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. 

Let's go to the social cohesion you discussed. It seems to me that trust in government is something that has been. if not in short supply, it has been slow in coming in Iraq, and I wonder how that is right now. And the institutions that are responsible for moving the country forward, is there trust, is there confidence in that?

Dr. Elie Abouaoun:    Well, yes, the lack of trust is at different levels. There is a lack of trust between the communities and the institutions, as you rightly mentioned, but there is also a lack of trust between the different constituents of Iraq. And this is not only based on sectarian divisions, but in some cases, even if you have one sectarian group in a given area, but they still mistrust each other for different reasons. And this is where the need for social cohesion emerges as a priority, because if you don't address these local conflicts, then that whatever gains you achieve at the national level can easily be reversed.

Tim Farley:    Are you also concerned about any foreign countries trying to insert themselves into the recovery in Iraq and to moving forward in Iraq, that they are trying to influence it in a negative way?

Dr. Elie Abouaoun:    Yeah, and it's not a matter of being afraid of that. I think it's a reality, and there are competing regional agendas playing out in Iraq from neighboring countries but also other countries in the region, and this has been obvious the last few years, whether at the political level, at the security level, et cetera. So this is the reality now, and I think it is affecting the degree to how much the Iraqis can control their own decisions.

Tim Farley:    What should we be looking forward to over the next short term and long term in Iraq? Some important steps that you think need to be taken?

Dr. Elie Abouaoun:    I think completing the formation of the government is an important step because now there are two crucial ministers that have not been appointed yet. So either a Minister of the Interior, or the Minister of Defense. But at the same time, we're looking forward to seeing the plan of the government become a reality, to come into action, and to start seeing the results. And we do hope also that the government will take into account not only the physical infrastructure aspect, but also the social cohesion aspect.

Tim Farley:    Dr. Elie Abouaoun, thank you for joining us on POTUS today. 

Dr. Elie Abouaoun:    Thank you. Have a great day.

Tim Farley:    You, too, and safe travels. Dr. Elie Abouaoun is the Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. He's based in Tunis, but he has been in Baghdad this week looking at the country, sort of taking the measure of things a year since ISIS was kicked out, or had its last stand, if you will, in Iraq. He is tweeting, by the way, @elie022.

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