Friday, July 31, 2009

Will Iraq Ever Have Reconciliation?

As Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited the United States in July 2009 President Obama repeated the common refrain that he hoped that there would eventually be reconciliation in Iraq. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy issued a report on this very topic on July 17 entitled, “How This Ends: Iraq’s Uncertain Path toward National Reconciliation.” In it, authors Michael Eisenstadt and Ahmed Ali document the steps that the American and Iraqi governments have followed to try to achieve this goal, and find their efforts lacking, and the prospects of making amends unlikely.

Reconciliation is important in countries that have recently gone through armed conflict. It provides greater stability and lessons the chances of a return to chaos. Successful reconciliation processes in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Mozambique, South Africa, and Uruguay all shared the following steps:

1. Some form of truth telling
2. Recognition that all groups in the country are fellow citizens
3. Compensation programs and trials for some
4. Public peace events

Iraq has had some of these, but also gone against others. A major problem is that the United States and various Iraqi groups do not have a shared vision of what reconciliation means.

America’s policies have changed over time, and been a mixed bag. At first, U.S. efforts were focused upon making up for their own early mistakes. This included integrating Sunnis into the security forces and politics after the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the Iraqi Army and initiated deBaathification, and paying compensation to families that were harmed by the military. The U.S. has also stressed ethnosectarian power sharing through the passage of laws, and mediation between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Norwegian Iraq expert Reidar Visser has argued that this is a misreading of Iraqi politics and maintains differences in the country rather than helps heal them. Not only that, but the results of these early strategies were very poor. Few laws pushed by the U.S. have been passed for example, and the ones that were have not been implemented as planned. During the Surge, the American forces began working with insurgents and militiamen that were willing to give up fighting in a bottom-up approach. This was much more successful, and directly led to the decrease in violence. At the same time, the U.S. has not been able to link many of the groups they worked with to the Iraqi government such as the Sons of Iraq.

Many of Baghdad’s policies on the other hand, have been interpreted as retribution or done for political gain. Examples of the former were deBaathification and the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, and cases of the latter were the moves by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In June 2006 Maliki announced a 24-point plan that included amnesty, conferences, changes in deBaathification and the constitution, compensation, punishment for war criminals and terrorists, and the creation of a national dialogue council. Baghdad did compensate victims of the former regime, and passed an Amnesty Law and Accountability and Justice Act, which replaced the old deBaathification process created by the Americans. The Amnesty Law has only freed a few thousand prisoners, and has mostly been used for public relations purposes, while the Accountability Act has never been implemented. Baghdad created the Supreme Committee for Dialogue and National Reconciliation, which works with tribes, civil groups, political parties and religious leaders, but it has no staff, and parliament cancelled its funding. There is also the much more important Follow-Up Committee for National Reconciliation that vets former officials and soldiers to be re-integrated, and works with the Sons of Iraq, Tribal Support Councils, and the displaced. Both are headed by Maliki confidants, and have been accused of supporting the Prime Minister’s personal agenda. Sunnis in parliament also set up the National Reconciliation Committee to follow their vision. It mostly works to free Sunni prisoners. The government has integrated several thousand former soldiers and officers into the security forces or pays them pensions. There have also been examples of local reconciliation. The rest of Baghdad’s goals have been largely unmet, and led to accusations about the government’s intentions rather than helped heal wounds.

Eisenstadt and Ali finish by saying that reconciliation in Iraq will take years, and may never occur in a meaningful fashion. The problems are large and many. First, the major Iraqi political parties are based upon ethnosectarian politics, and could lose power if they give that up. Second, there is still fighting in Iraq, and a World Bank study on conflicts found that almost 50% of countries coming out of civil wars fall back into them within five years. Third, there is little consensus in Baghdad on major issues such as oil, and politics are fragmented, which makes it hard to conduct negotiations or find partners. Fourth, there is a lack of accountability as many militants are involved in politics and security with no regret for their past deeds. Fifth, many conflicts and fighting took place within communities, not just between them, which has never been resolved. Sixth, many groups still talk about revenge, and see things in zero-sum terms. Seventh Iraq has been in the throes of elections since 2008, which makes compromising more difficult. Last, Iraq’s neighbors have all interfered in its internal affairs, and continue to do so to this day such as Iran. These problems may never be overcome, which is why the authors are so pessimistic about the country’s future. Iraq’s government will continue, but without resolving some of these large and pressing concerns, it’s unlikely that major changes or legislation will be implemented, which are a necessity to pull the country out of its current predicament.


Biddle, Stephen, “Reversal in Iraq,” Center for Preventative Action Council on Foreign Relations, May 2009

DeYoung, Karen, “Obama Calls on Iraq to Foster National Unity,” Washington Post, 7/23/09

Eisenstadt, Michael and Ali, Ahmed, “’How This Ends’: Iraq’s Uncertain Path toward National Reconciliation,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 7/17/09

Visser, Reidar, “Biden, US Policy in Iraq and the Concept of Muhasasa,”, 7/6/09

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