Stability in Iraq: On a knife's edge

Stability in Iraq: On a knife's edge
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The progress achieved in Iraq was evident to me on the drive from the airport.

As a diplomat serving in post-war Iraq from 2005 to 2007, I traveled often from the airport to the U.S. embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone, riding in an armored vehicle with a security detail armed with automatic weapons.

Returning recently for the first time in 12 years, now as the president of an international humanitarian organization, I rode in a regular, unarmored car sans security to my hotel outside of the Green Zone in what was formerly the off-limits “red zone.”

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I could see and feel the progress. Baghdad is no longer the militarized city it once was. Leaving my hotel, I felt personally secure. And although acts of terrorism continue to occur, the risks for most citizens are similar to any large city.

“The success is real — but precarious,” the President of Iraq Barham Salih told me during our visit.

Indeed, the country still faces enormous hurdles. Parts of the country are in ruins and 1.8 million of its residents are internally displaced. Iraq is 12th from the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption perception index. And while economic growth is estimated at 2.6 percent, the capital still has only four to six hours of electricity a day.

More significantly, the expansion of militias across the country poses a threat. Shiite militias, feeling they deserve credit for “defeating” ISIS, are loath to leave Sunni and Yezidi areas. Their presence fuels resentment with Kurdish, Sunni and Yezidi militias. The government talks of reintegrating them into the Iraqi army, but that could undo the years of effort to depoliticize the military. 

Meanwhile, Iran has an inordinate amount of influence over the political and security landscape by funding militias and political groups. This is a significant destabilizing factor and a path to further internal conflict in the country, as Sunni and Kurdish minorities will not rally around a united Iraq if Iran is pulling the strings. 

And ISIS, while it has lost its territory in Iraq, remains a threat. Attacks still occur, especially around the cities of Mosul and Fallujah, and Iraq is repeating past mistakes in its victory by keeping anyone even remotely connected to ISIS fighters, including children, sitting in internment camps with no plan for reintegration. This will only serve to support recruitment of a next generation of insurgents. 

Given this bleak outlook, it is understandable that many Americans and Europeans question whether continued engagement with Iraq is worth it. But giving up would be a tragic mistake.  With all its warts, Iraq is a nascent democracy — very imperfect, but functioning — and remains the best long-term hope for stability in the region. 

Given the importance of a stable and democratic Iraq, what should the U.S. be doing?

First, the U.S. needs to continue to pressure the Iraq government to remove Shiite militias from the north. They are seen by local communities as a threat that will inevitably lead to renewed violence and keep displaced populations from returning home.  

Second, the U.S. should continue security assistance to the country. This includes training and supporting the Iraqi army — in no small part to ensure that it is neither taken over from within by political groups nor unduly influenced by the Iranians with the reintegration of militia forces. There must also be a sense that the U.S. will remain engaged on the security front for the longer term. Otherwise, the lack of commitment will result in a vacuum that will be filled by others, like Iran. 

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Third, and most importantly, the U.S. needs to remain engaged with economic and humanitarian support.  This includes not just foreign aid resources to help with the post-ISIS reconstruction, but also high-level diplomatic engagement to support the Iraqi political factions in deescalating tensions and finding workable solutions to security concerns and the challenges of power-sharing.    

During my recent visit to Iraq, I had a chance to talk with survivors of the ISIS occupation in Mosul. I was inspired by their stories of survival and perseverance. But perhaps most surprising to me was this: In the midst of a city with virtually no infrastructure and a devastation that looked like a moonscape, none of them wanted to leave.

They are the foundation for a different vision of the future for Iraq and the Middle East.  But the country rests on a knife’s edge and U.S. support will significantly impact the future of Iraq and the world.

Daniel Speckhard, who served as U.S. ambassador to Greece and Belarus, is a former deputy chief of Mission in Iraq and senior official at NATO. He is the president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health.