World waits for Iraqi leadership to turn over a new leaf

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By Arnab Neil Sengupta Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi (L) and President Barham Salih (R) in the parliament building in Baghdad. File photo: Karim Kadim / AP
Call it destiny or fate, some unseen force seems to be pulling Iraq in the right direction. At least that’s the impression one gets from a distance. A war-torn country that until just a few months ago was being written off as broken beyond repair, has gained a second wind, thanks to a serendipitous twist of fate.

Given their combined wealth of experience, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Salih surely have no illusions about the daunting tasks ahead of them or the high level of public expectations.

Nonetheless, they would do well to heed the warning of UAE vice-president and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, when he said in a recent interview with Asharq Al Awsat: “Arab countries have seen enough and paid enough heavy prices. Many years have been wasted. No one has any excuse not to learn from these lessons.”

The duo took the reins just as Iraq was beginning to be seen as a place where Shiite and Sunni Islamists reveled in each other’s follies, where young women wanting to enjoy life’s simple pleasures got killed by moral vigilantes, where minorities such as Christians, Kurds, and Yazidis saw migration as their only hope, and where corruption was endemic at every level of government.

Despite the grim backdrop, Abdul-Mahdi and Salih have got down to the nitty-gritty, starting with efforts to fill key cabinet positions and taking steps to address the issues fuelling discontent and anger. Acting within severe political, diplomatic and financial constraints, they appear to be doing their level best to cobble together a stable and inclusive government.

Abdul-Mahdi and Salih are also putting into practice the old dictum that the first principle of good foreign policy is good government at home. Instead of picking sides in the ongoing US-Iran tussle for regional influence, they have elected to put Iraq’s interests first, reaping rich dividends in the process.

Case in point: the Trump administration’s decision to grant Iraq temporary exemption from the Iran sanctions, enabling it to continue importing electricity from its eastern neighbor and thus averting a power crisis of the kind that triggered violent protests in Basra during the summer.

To cap it all, last week’s visit to the capital by Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) President Masoud Barzani has turned the page in Baghdad-Erbil relations, which had soured after last year’s Kurdistan independence referendum. The pro-independence outcome had been ruled illegal by the central government, which responded by imposing economic penalties, retaking disputed territory in oil-rich Kirkuk, and slashing Kurdistan’s share of the national budget.

Barzani’s meetings with Abdul-Mahdi and powerful Iraqi politicians in Baghdad came hot on the heels of a number of conciliatory moves – an agreement on the export of Kirkuk’s oil and the removal of customs duties at the internal border – which point to a budding rapprochement between the central and Kurdistan regional governments.

None of this is to say Iraq’s glass is even close to half full. The situation could quickly take a turn for the worse if a long suffering population loses patience with the pace of progress, especially in areas devastated by the war against ISIS, or if the regional security environment deteriorates further for reasons beyond the central leadership’s control.

More worryingly, crude oil sales, on which Iraq’s economy remains overly dependent, could cease to be a reliable source of revenue for the government in the medium to long term if prices continue to head south and surging US shale oil production leads to a glut in the market.

Indeed, for all the praise that Iraq gets for persevering as a democracy and its success in ousting ISIS from northern cities, ordinary people continue to vote with their feet in very large numbers every year. As for the vast expanses devastated by the war, reconstruction remains a bridge too far, what with its estimated $88 billion price tag and half-hearted efforts at best to win the hearts and minds of the local Sunni populace.

No matter how strong the vested interests of Iraq’s political elites, religious preachers with fixed worldviews, and paramilitary leaders cannot be allowed to decide indefinitely the course of the country. Iraq has little chance of success in a rapidly changing world without decentralization of power, overhaul of the bureaucracy, privatization of public services, judicial and police reforms, and adoption of modern economic tools and policies.

At the same time, the government needs to demonstrate its commitment to women’s protection and empowerment; invest in the education and well-being of its young population to counter extremist narratives; provide an attractive environment for investors and visitors; encourage tolerance towards all religions, cultures, and ethnic groups; and diversify the creaky economy in preparation for a post-oil age.

To this end, the new government must look beyond the immediate neighbourhood for successful models of federalism and economic diversification while working to make Iraq more socially liberal in tune with the times. The strategic national imperative of maintaining friendly relations with Iran should not preclude an appreciation of the rapid progress made, for instance, by the Arab Gulf states in fields as far apart as public infrastructure and cultural diplomacy.

For good measure, visible steps to tackle high unemployment and fix broken public utilities in Basra and other southern cities, allocation of a fair share of the federal budget to Kurdistan Region, and removal of the underlying conditions that nourish extremism in the Sunni heartland, could go a long way in giving Iraqis something hopeful to aspire to in their own country.

Ultimately, the best way for Iraq to succeed in a turbulent region would be by demonstrating that the multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and multi-sectarian make-up of its society is compatible with, rather than a hindrance to, being modern, dynamic, and cosmopolitan. Even as they bask in the international community’s approval, the onus is on Abdul-Mahdi and Salih to prove every day that they deserve to be in charge of the destiny of 40 million Iraqis.

Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.