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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Iraq needs a long-term strategy as much as it needs short-term wins

A vision that organises the relationships between citizen and state in Iraq is missing, writes Mina Al-Oraibi

Iraq must move beyond laudatory statements and put in place strategies for the future.   Iraqi Prime Minister's Media Office via Reuters
Iraq must move beyond laudatory statements and put in place strategies for the future. Iraqi Prime Minister's Media Office via Reuters

It was a moment Iraqis had waited for since the terrible events of the summer of 2014. The declaration of the defeat of ISIL on Iraqi soil. Haider Al Abadi, Iraq's prime minister, declared victory on Sunday, with a national holiday on Monday to celebrate this victory. However, the term "celebrate" is difficult for those who lost loved ones fighting ISIL, for others who lost loved ones at the hands of ISIL and for millions either displaced from their homes or living in harsh conditions in liberated, but destroyed, cities.

And while the war against ISIL was an important one, military victory was always just a matter of time with a retrained Iraqi army, local fighters and a coalition of 62 countries. However, what is less certain is winning the peace. For the last few months, Iraqis have been waiting for clarity of vision on how this peace will be won, and how their country will move from being a state in crisis, into a stable nation state for all its citizens, capable of growing and prospering.

This needs short-term wins, medium-term plans and a long-term strategy. With his declaration of victory, Mr Al Abadi should have announced a 100-day plan for liberated areas. It should have encompassed short-term wins to start rebuilding trust in the state. Such a plan could include all that the government and international NGOs are doing in three key areas: education, health and housing. Iraqis from areas affected by ISIL and especially in Nineweh, Anbar and Salahildin, are in need of getting their children vaccinated, educated and in safe housing. Older Iraqis needs health screening and medications. The Iraqi army is working diligently to clear landmines and booby-trapped houses, some schools have come back to life and very basic health services are being provided by international NGOs. However, the need is great, and the resources are too scarce.

In the medium-term, Iraq needs a clear plan on how its governance and security architecture will be set. Many of the agreements of 2003 were flawed; events like the rise of ISIL, the financial crisis and the KRG referendum deem some of them redundant. However, it seems unlikely such an overhaul will happen before next spring’s elections. In the meantime, sensitive issues like returned those who are displaced or how the budget is distributed, should not become political footballs.

A long-term vision that organises the relationships between citizen and state in Iraq is missing. There is a real danger of those in charge in Iraq don’t realise the potential of the state as both guarantor of security and responsible for upholding the law. That is what warlords and militia leaders are banking on, in order to fill a renewed vacuum.

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Halfway across the world, policy makers in Washington DC are putting finishing touches on a new American strategy in Iraq. One message is clear. American officials say the US has learned the lessons of 2003 and 2011 – there will not be a declaration of victory and a withdrawal of troops without truly securing the ground. Furthermore, political engagement will be maintained to secure a strategic ally. The US has invested in Iraq this time and seen the desperate result of disengaging, and this current administration doesn’t plan to repeat that colossal mistake. As US Central Command commander, General Joseph Votel, said, "we have to be persistent, this is not the first time we fight (terrorist groups).. when you take the pressure off them, it is like giving oxygen to a fire".

Back to the Middle East and Iraq’s immediate region, it is important to cut off the oxygen fanning the flames of extremism and sectarian divisions. While Iran wants to claim supremacy and Turkey remains primarily concerned about the Kurds’ ambitions, another player is beginning to have influence. For the first time in more than a decade, there is the emergence of an Iraq strategy from Baghdad’s most important Arab neighbour. Saudi Arabia has followed up its initial political opening up, with limited intelligence sharing, re-opening of land borders and resumption of flights, with suggestions of a shared industrial zone.

Winning the peace in Iraq will require regional cooperation – and will require a resolution of the war in Syria. Both these are factors that are unlikely to be secured soon. Which is why any optimism about Iraq is cautionary and should be limited. Furthermore, Iraq’s internal dynamic offers many reasons to be concerned, as politicians talk past each other and rarely see a need for concessions. However, there are two clear deadlines that could force more deliberative steps and improved strategic thinking - the first is the international reconstruction conference slated for February in Kuwait and, second, the parliamentary elections to be held in May. With international support through the Kuwait conference, and internal political coalescing around the elections, the hope is that winning the peace can build on the momentum created by the military victory against ISIL. But for the hope to be realised, strategies must be put in place, beyond laudatory statements.