ONLINE ONLY: Iraq is not a Four Letter Word

British politicians are ignoring Iraq just when it needs us most

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Iraq barely registers in British politics. It wasn’t even raised in the last two monthly Foreign Office questions in the Commons. Some may think this is a bonus given Iraq’s toxic impact on public opinion. But Iraq is on the mend and we are missing opportunities to help civil society organisations and Iraqi reformers overcome their history and geography to fashion a peaceful, federal and democratic Iraq.

Too many think it’s doom and gloom in Mesopotamia but the reality of substantial and rapid progress deserves to be understood and nurtured. The key is security. Civilian and military deaths are down substantially thanks to the American surge and the growing capacity and confidence of the Iraqi security forces, which now alone control half the country’s 18 provinces. Iraqis have had enough and know, I think, how near they came to full-scale civil war in 2006. And, sadly, sectarian segregation has been completed in some areas.

The Iraqi Government led by Nouri Al Maliki has secured considerable success in tackling the brutal Mahdi Army and criminal gangs. I was part of a delegation which visited Baghdad just after the Mahdi Army was routed in the southern port city of Basra. The reign of terror against women has been halted and oil and arms smugglers disrupted. The “Basra Bounce” has made the Iraqi PM more popular with Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, whose Peshmerga forces played a useful role in liberating Basra.Clearly, Baghdad is an abnormal city. We were confined to the Green Zone for security reasons and stayed a few yards from the Tigris but never saw it due to the thicket of concrete blast walls in place (though travel and contact with people in the Kurdistan region is much easier). We were in Baghdad whilst the Mahdi Army rained down mortars on the Green Zone – this has since stopped thanks to the Iraqi security forces taking Sadr City back and beginning the process of dismantling the militias. The Iraqis also regained control of Amarah without a single shot being fired. The battles for Mosul and Diyala are crucial to breaking the back of the Ba’athist resistance whilst Al Qaeda has suffered a “near strategic defeat,” according to the CIA Director.

However, Iraq is not blessed with good neighbours. Sunni neighbours dislike a Shia/Kurd revival in a previously Sunni dominated dictatorship. Turkey trades hugely with Iraq but is heavily suspicious of the autonomy that Iraqi Kurds have gained, although diplomatic efforts seem to be bearing fruit. Iran and Syria are directly implicated in assisting militias. All seem content, as an Iraqi parliamentarian told us, with Iraq being a consumer rather than a producer.

The struggle to establish law and order under the federal state is ongoing and there will be reversals. Recent bomb attacks in Baghdad are, however, newsworthy because they have become more exceptional.

The planned provincial elections in the Autumn provide an opportunity for Sunni groups to reverse their boycott and take their share of power. There is also a consensus that parties linked to militias should be banned which may account for decision to turn the Mahdi Army into a political movement, albeit with the fig leaf of a special force dedicated to fighting the Americans.<--pagebreak->One sign of the growing confidence of the Iraqi Government is its decision to refuse being a ward of the UN and seeking, instead, to strike a bilateral agreement first with the Americans and then with other foreign powers with troops in the country under the UN’s authorisation.

The status of forces agreement will govern the conditions under which troops and the larger number of private security companies behave.

This has been misunderstood or misrepresented as an American effort to impose permanent military bases on Iraq, turn it into a vassal state and menace Iran. However, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari emphasises that the agreement is a sovereign decision between the United States and an elected constitutional government, is similar to other agreements with Arab states, that “Iraq will not be taken, based on this agreement, as a launching pad for any military or aggressive actions against the neighbouring states.” Zebari insists that the agreement will last not for 25, 50 or 100 years but for “one to two years, which can either be renewed or annulled by either one or by the two sides.”

The growing confidence of the Iraqi Government is reflected in the Prime Minister’s insistence on a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.<--pagebreak->Security provides the breathing space to increase basic services such as sewage, health, water and electricity (on average available for only 7 hours each day in Baghdad). And other simmering political and economic conflicts stand a far better chance of being resolved.

Oil is central to the Iraqi economy and provides well over 90% of its revenues. Production has moderately increased and revenues are much higher thanks to soaring oil prices. But the Iraqi oil industry is a basket case, neglected for decades and Iraq has a massive potential which requires foreign expertise and investment.

The Iraqi Cabinet agreed a hydrocarbons law in February 2007 but its implementation has been stalled since. There are big differences between the Kurds and Baghdad. The Kurds concede a greater role to foreign companies than Baghdad where many wish to keep a nationalised oil industry. There is a dispute over a fair Barnett-type formula for revenue sharing between the different parts of the country. High-level talks are taking place to resolve these issues.

The status of the disputed and oil-rich Kirkuk governorate is still in the balance. The city is historically part of the Kurdistan region but was forcibly Arabised by Saddam. If it is returned to Kurdistan, its government would then receive a higher proportion of oil revenues which are distributed via the central government. Baghdad and the Turks worry that returning Kirkuk to the Kurds would provide the material basis for separatism although the Kurdish leadership has made it plain that they aim to stick with Iraq, despite their own wretched treatment by the Ba’athists. <--pagebreak->There has been a proliferation of political life since the overthrow of Saddam. But Iraq is a very young country. Its leaders have only known the most vicious brand of totalitarianism or long exile. Doctors, journalists and business people now have to organise politics for the first time and mistakes will be made. They are eager, however, to learn from the outside world and catch up on the most modern methods and mechanisms in the modern world.

Educational, political, economic, social and sporting exchanges are all crucial to this process. There is also a high regard for the British, despite our terrible role in the 20th century and English is widely taught and spoken. I worry that the toxic power of the word ‘Iraq’ is needlessly deterring investment and exchanges which are also disrupted by difficult visa procedures which regularly see Iraqi leaders denied entry to the UK.

In our meetings with the Prime Minister and his party leaders, we emphasised the rights of the Iraqi labour movement. Those who have escaped the nightmare of Ba’athism understandably worry that it may infiltrate independent civil society organisations. The Ba’athist ban on public sector organisation remains, and union funds have been frozen until they can demonstrate that they are democratic. The main Iraqi federation has always sought to demonstrate this and build a non-sectarian movement that also seeks to increase women’s involvement. This was difficult enough in the face of a deliberate campaign of assassination against its leaders but they are also hindered by these unfair government restrictions. The Prime Minister promised us progress and seeking Iraq’s compliance with ILO standards on labour rights needs to become a major priority. <--pagebreak->There are also major problems concerning women’s rights, the rights of the independent media, the large scale of corruption and the plight of displaced Iraqis within and outside the country, whose entrepreneurial skills are badly needed.

But let’s keep a sense of perspective on the pace of change on all fronts. A senior adviser to the Iraqi Prime Minister says that it took former Soviet bloc countries a decade to recover before beginning substantial progress. By that token, Iraq is half-way towards the road to normality, although the physical and psychological legacies of Ba’athism and Saddam are far bigger burdens than for many former communist countries, which received considerable assistance from other European countries.

And then there is the continuing impact of American errors: too few troops, excessive de-Baathification and the clumsy disbandment of the army giving thousands of trained men from what they felt was a disenfranchised if previously dominant minority the incentive to take up arms. And plenty of these were to hand thanks to the failure to prevent looting, including the old regime’s arsenals.

I give you two signs of Iraqi ambition and promise. I stood on the 4.5 km long runway of the new Erbil International Airport being built by Turkish contractors to a British design. Once completed, it will be the fifth largest runway in the world, able to take the largest freight and passenger aircraft. It is often said that the only friends of the Kurds are the mountains into which they have often been forced to retreat for sanctuary. This airport will give this land locked region a much needed bridge to the world. <--pagebreak->Or take the proposed new Great Port of Basra which may come to rival others in the Gulf, even become the biggest container port in the world and employ up to 500,000 people.

The Iraqis are a proud people who have suffered for too long. They are anxious to retrieve control of their destiny but need help to stand on their own two feet. The burden of history and geography is huge. But geology – oil, gas, agriculture – can yet help them find a path which combines prosperity and social justice. Iraq is no longer a four letter word. Are we going to remain on the sidelines or will we now help them?