The crisis of the Iraqi state

Yezid Sayigh writes: The liberation on November 17 of Rawa, the last significant Iraqi town held by the Islamic State, promises the end of a particularly dangerous phase in the history of a country that has experienced three especially destructive wars since 1980 and almost incessant armed conflict in between. But rather than an era of peace and stability, what Iraq faces next is a far more complex and potentially fateful struggle. For three years since the Islamic State’s dramatic surge and capture of the northern city of Mosul, the military campaign to defeat it has obscured the three challenges that truly threaten the cohesion and integrity of the Iraqi state from within.

The first of these is the deeply problematic reality of key state institutions, which suffer high levels of corruption and political factionalism, and have repeatedly proved themselves dysfunctional. The abrupt collapse of the armed forces that allowed a small number of Islamic State fighters to capture Mosul in June 2014 demonstrated this most graphically, but similar problems afflict the security sector that comes under the ministry of interior. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s use of the armed forces and counter-terrorism units to spearhead his interventions in local government and replace civilian councils in several provinces further undermined the functioning of state institutions. Remedial steps to rebuild and retrain the army since 2014, led by the United States, focused on select elite units and did little to transform the overall defence and internal security sectors or reform the pattern of civil-military relations that proved so damaging under Maliki.

The second major challenge facing Iraq is the enduring failure of state institutions –and of the political class responsible for running the executive and legislature – to deliver key public goods and services. This is true for all sectors of the Iraqi population. Indeed, the worst rates of deep poverty and unemployment are registered in the three overwhelmingly Shia provinces south of Baghdad, despite the common perception among its detractors that Iraq is ruled by a Shia government. According to Iraqi economists and parliamentarians, not a single new hospital or power plant was built between 2003 and 2013 despite the spending of $500 billion in public funds, and the country’s top finance and oil officials confirm that $300 billion was actually paid to contractors for projects that were never completed. As seriously, the government has failed almost entirely to develop the business sector and diversify economy, and has actually regressed in terms of the overwhelming dependence of public finances on oil revenue.

Last but not least, as many commentators have correctly noted, Iraq faces the challenge of achieving genuine political reconciliation between social communities. But although the focus is commonly on reconciling Sunni Arabs and reintegrating them within the central state under a government they distrust, intra-community divisions are at least as deep and pose no less a threat to the viability of Iraq as a nation-state. Political disagreement among Sunni Arabs or among Shia Arabs is at least as acute as it is between the two denominations over the desired nature and identity of the state: whether it should be Islamic or secular, unitary or federal, closer to Iran or other Arab countries or neutrally balanced between the two. In some respects, Iraq has reverted to the destabilizing linkage between its regional alignments and domestic politics that characterized its turbulent politics up to 1970. The potential for a return to openly adversarial relations between the central and Kurdish regional governments and the opening that provides for external involvement only adds to the risks. [Continue reading…]

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