Thursday, 22nd June 2017

Opportunities beckon for Iraq after Daesh, politicians permitting

With Islamic State (IS or Daesh) continuing to lose ground in Mosul, the time will soon come when Iraqis can look beyond the destruction wrought by that invidious group and dare to focus instead on the future. They can do so buoyed by some promising signs that things could at last start to move in the right direction. A recent survey of 1,338 Iraqis found they were more optimistic about the country’s direction, not least because of improvements in security and reductions in sectarianism. The poll, carried out on behalf of the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), involved Iraqis in all areas of the country except those controlled by IS.

But this is still a fragile political scene which could easily be undermined by any one of several challenging issues the feuding political classes will struggle to tackle. Politicians in Baghdad have yet to prove they can really focus on key economic issues such as creating jobs and tackling corruption. Secondly, contemporary Iraq’s deep-seated sectarian politics do not bode well for the ability of today’s political leaders to chart a new course; the surest way to mobilise the vote has been to appeal to base sectarian interests and many will struggle to see beyond that. Perhaps the thorniest issue, which could burst into life in a few months’ time, is Kurdish independence.

Kurdish politicians have named 25 September as their preferred date for what would be a non-binding test of public opinion. Binding or not, if the Kurds’ independence referendum goes ahead it will significantly complicate relations with Baghdad. This is one reason why it has been opposed by every international power with an interest in Iraq, as well as by the United Nations. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), of course, has its own political tensions, between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Movement for Change (Goran), which could lead to other problems in any independent future.

There is little doubt what way a vote would go if it were held today. The NDI survey found 96% of those in the KRG region favoured breaking away from Iraq. Such a result would be extremely destabilising, not least because one consequence of the battles to defeat IS is that the KRG’s Peshmerga forces currently occupy areas such as Kirkuk that most Iraqis see as nothing to do with Kurdistan. If the new state staked a permanent claim it would be sure to set off an intense political (and probably quickly militarised) argument with the federal government in Baghdad.

The situation in the rest of Iraq suggests political tensions are easing in a potentially significant way. According to the NDI poll, 39% of Iraqis now think the country is heading in the right direction (up from just 10% in January 2016), while 60% think the security situation is getting better and 84% feel that relations between Shia and Sunni are getting better. These figures seem to be driven by the success in gradually defeating IS, by both the Iraqi Army and Shia-dominated Hashd Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units). Even in the Sunni-majority west of Iraq the often feared Hashd are given credit by a significant proportion (40%) for helping to drive out IS. In essence, Daesh has indirectly managed to do what no politician has been able to in a long time: bring Iraqis together.

People’s priorities are changing with the improving security and social situation, away from the need to preserve life and towards dealing with more quotidian fare such as corruption and unemployment. In sum, the political classes now need to figure out how to win the peace. One way to do that would be for leaders to try to appeal to people on all sides of the country’s sectarian divides. The relatively high poll rating for Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, a Shia, suggests this could be possible. Abadi has an overall approval rating of 59%, versus 38% disapproval, but his approval is highest (78%) in Sunni-dominated western Iraq.

The details of the survey’s findings have been shared with Iraqi political leaders over recent weeks and months, which could help to convince them of the merits of pursuing a non-sectarian path. “There’s this very unique window of opportunity in Iraq” said John Moreira, president of JPM Strategic Solutions which carried out the polling. “I do not anticipate it lasting long, which is why we need the political leaders to act now. They need to strike while the iron’s hot and take proactive measures, not only to show unity but to show that the government is working on behalf of all Iraqis.”

That process needs to benefit the Kurds too, as a matter of priority. If the KRG goes ahead with its referendum then the momentum towards full independence will be all but impossible to stop, with unknowable consequences for the fragile improvements now visible in the rest of the country. As ever, there are plenty of reasons to be doubtful about the future of Iraq. But there is at least now also some room for optimism if the opportunities on offer can be grasped by the political class.

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