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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Fifteen years on from Colin Powell's fateful speech, Iraqis are still picking up the pieces

If anything is to be learnt from the past decade and a half, writes Mina Al-Oraibi, it is that there are no short cuts to getting Iraq back on track

The former US Secretary of State Colin Powell pictured in 2008 during a TV appearance
The former US Secretary of State Colin Powell pictured in 2008 during a TV appearance

Exactly 15 years ago, then US Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that Iraq had missed its "last chance" to prove its compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441. The rest is history.

This anniversary, February 5, is one that will pass most people by. However, it is an important historical moment that still casts its shadow over Iraq and on the international community. While Iraq is left to deal with the fallout of the 2003 war that followed Mr Powell’s speech, the UN continues to suffer from the impact of the declaration of war by a security council member and an ensuing invasion.

In his fateful speech, Mr Powell said: "This council placed the burden on Iraq to comply and disarm and not on the inspectors to find that which Iraq has gone out of its way to conceal for so long. Inspectors are inspectors; they are not detectives". And yet, as is now well known, no weapons of mass destruction were found. While inspectors are definitely not detectives, much rests with them to determine compliance with international agreements. Their inability to determine the course of developments in Iraq has not stopped their all important role in monitoring other situations. Most recently, Syria has been found in breach of its international obligations time and again, using chemical weapons against its own people. But no decision to stop the current regime in Syria has been made.

Back to Iraq. Mr Powell’s speech was a precursor to American’s intervention in 2003. While outsiders, in large part journalists, activists and academics, argue over that decision, Iraqis in 2018 contend with their present and future, while continuing to pick up the pieces of the past. There are key milestones for Iraq this year, most importantly the upcoming elections in May that can either build a stable foundation towards the future or create further chaos. However, more immediately, Iraqis are looking towards ways of reconstructing their societies and cities after years of war, the most recent being the battle against ISIL that has devastated several cities and dozens of villages. The upcoming reconstruction conference, which Kuwait will be hosting this month, will be significant in pushing forward this reconstruction effort. The Iraqi government and the Reconstruction Fund for Areas Affected by Terrorist Operations are already working towards reconstruction projects, but need international support to expedite them, according to Mustafa Mohammed Amin Al-Hiti, president of the fund.

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Mr Al-Hiti was part of the official Iraqi delegation attending the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, delivering this message. Speaking to him, the challenge seems both huge and surmountable. Mr Al-Hiti said: "our philosophy is comprised of two dimensions, the first is the physical reconstruction of the damage, but this is not the only element". He added: "we are greatly concerned about the human aspect of the reconstruction process. Unless we take care of the human, at any time we will face a renewed challenge. We need to immunise the people from extremists". In Mosul alone, Iraq’s second city, there is 10 million tonnes of rubble to be cleared from the brutal war against ISIL. Mental health issues are one of the biggest challenges facing workers in the country. And yet, the city has already hosted its first marathon and cultural festival. The contrast between the challenges and possibilities is a testament of the complexities of modern-day Iraq.

If anything is to be learnt from the past 15 years, it is that there are no short cuts. Hard decisions, based on long term investments and weeding out corruption, are the only way to get Iraq back on track. As several articles in the constitution continue to be contested between different groups, and key legislation like the hydrocarbon law is pending, the problems of 2003 continue. The taking down of institutions by the Coalition Provisional Authority, led by American Paul Bremer in 2003, and the standing up of militias, continues to plague Iraq.

In completing his lengthy remarks at the UN, Mr Powell said: "We must not shrink from whatever is ahead of us. We must not fail in our duty and our responsibility to the citizens of the countries that are represented by this body". Perhaps this is one of the least remembered lines from Mr Powell, but it is, perhaps, the only one that rings true. The responsibility to protect citizens, especially Iraqi citizens who have had to contend with the repercussions of international actions, remain as important today as ever before.