Iraq’s New Normal

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Amidst all the 10-year anniversary analysis of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, the missing piece is a clear and coherent picture of Iraq today and its potential for tomorrow. Regrettably, such a picture is elusive because Iraq is a complex mix of a society and state rebuilding, but without sufficient reconciliation for the past or consensus for the future. The image is cloudy.

At the political level, Iraq is today a flawed but functioning multiparty hybrid presidential/parliamentary system. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is the dominant actor, and has worked relentlessly - some would say ruthlessly - to consolidate his power to advance his vision of the reconstruction of Iraq and to ensure the continued power of the Shia majority community. He has minimally accepted the checks and balances implicit in the current system, but few believe the constitution is the guide for the rough and tumble of Iraqi politics these days. Maliki's style of co-opting select Sunnis but discrediting and undermining any significant Sunni political bloc has set back prospects for any lasting reconciliation between Sunni and Shia in the country.

The relations between Maliki's Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government led by President Massoud Barzani are also fraught because of a number of issues. These include disputed territories on the Arab-Kurdish frontlines, the Kurds' assertiveness in oil exploration and production deals, and the development of a quasi-independent Kurdish foreign policy, vis a vis Turkey in particular. In recent budget deliberations, Prime Minister Maliki reduced the Kurdish share of income based on oil production, apparently revising the complicated formula by which the KRG submits its oil revenue to the national government and receives payments allocated on a population ratio basis in return. This early March maneuver was an assertion of primacy by Maliki over the Kurds, but could have long-term consequences if it sharpens Kurdish thinking about the desirability of breaking free from Iraq at some point.

Iraq's oil wealth provides robust resources for national development in the KRG and the rest of Iraq. As a result, reconstruction of the country's infrastructure, rebuilding of research and academic institutions and investment in new economic enterprises can proceed with less dependence on foreign aid than in most post-conflict states. But slow decision-making, poor contracting procedures and endemic corruption have seriously constrained the progress that could have been made by now. The last report of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, released in March 2013, detailed the many shortcomings of American reconstruction efforts (valued at over $60 billion in U.S. funds and billions more in Iraqi funds). The report found a lack of early buy-in from Iraqis, a lack of attention to capacity building for Iraqis to sustain the effort, and very weak Iraqi oversight of financial transactions that enable corruption. The bottom line is an American legacy that has created resentment and only modest enduring achievements, and an Iraq that needs more time to develop more transparent and efficient economic policies.

U.S.-Iraq relations are a pale shadow of what they were even five years ago, and part of that shift is by design. The removal of American forces from Iraq was planned and mutually agreed, and had the salutary effect of reducing at least one of the sources of violence and instability in the country. Shia insurgents were able to lay down their arms once the occupation ended; Sunni areas still harbor groups of extremists whose grievances are now directed at Baghdad, not foreign forces. But the policy activities outlined in the Strategic Framework Agreement of 2008 are only partly in play. The U.S. government was not able to sustain the intense level of cooperation envisioned (in areas such as energy, education, health, environment, information technology, etc.) and Iraq's political structures were not up to the task of frequent ministerial exchanges. More effort will be needed to make real the commitment to a robust civilian relationship. While some believe US policy has developed a pro-Maliki tilt (at the expense of the Sunnis and the KRG), there are new and enduring frictions in the bilateral relationship with respect to Iraq's ties to Iran and Syria, as Secretary Kerry pointed out in his recent visit.

As for Iraq's reintegration in the neighborhood, it too is a work in progress. Iraq's response to the crisis in Syria has only reinforced the mistrust that major Gulf Arabs have had about a Shia-led government in Baghdad since 2003. Maliki has viewed the Syrian crisis through a sectarian lens. He has kept solidarity with the Assad regime, even though the Syrian government helped feed the violence in Iraq from 2004 and even though Sunnis and Kurds see their interests aligned with the Syrian opposition. Iraq's return to the Arab League is a formality. More productive relations with its Arab neighbors will take time and may take a more careful modulation of Iraq's relations with Tehran.

Despite the long list of challenges, there are quiet signs of normalcy in many parts of the country. New universities are being established, Iraqis are travelling to rebuild their professional credentials, and joint ventures with Turkey and Iran are creating economic opportunities and improving the quality of life. It is true that many fewer Iraqis live in ethnically or religiously mixed communities, but some cross-communal bridge-building is happening the north, and in the disputed areas. Even the environmental degradation of Iraq's natural habitat is being reversed by Iraqi scientists. The ongoing restoration of the marshes in southern Iraq is a fitting metaphor for Iraq's near future; lingering sadness at the destruction caused by the old regime, but quiet hope for the slow return of a once proud and beautiful part of the country's patrimony.