>EPIC Guest Blogger: Reidar Visser on Why Obama-Biden May not be Change Iraqis Can Believe In

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Reidar Visser is research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs with a background in history and comparative politics (University of Bergen) and a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies (University of Oxford). He’s the author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Lit Verlag, 2006) and co-editor of An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? (Columbia University Press, 2007). The following commentary was originally posted at www.historiae.org

In many ways, Barack Obama’s approach to Iraq is strikingly similar to that of the Bush administration and John McCain. In theory, the addition of Joe Biden to Obama’s ticket could change this, but over the last weeks and months there have been interesting moves by Biden to remove most traces of his “Iraq plans” from the public domain.

With regard to Iraq, the real context of the upcoming Democratic convention is that “the surge” in Iraq is not working at all. Despite measurable successes in bringing the levels of violence down, the American-sponsored political system in Iraq is actually more dysfunctional than ever, and incapable of delivering the results that both Iraqis and Americans are looking for. Perhaps the best evidence is the fact that it is now Washington’s own darlings in Iraq and their pet projects that stand in the way of progress, as seen in the vice-presidential vetoes this year against the provincial powers law and the provincial elections law. There is in fact a cross-sectarian majority in the Iraqi parliament that wants to have early elections and power-sharing in Kirkuk, but Washington’s allies among the Kurds and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) keep blocking progress towards national reconciliation and a more sustainable political system. The salient cleavages in Iraqi politics are increasingly of a non-sectarian nature – the alliance that challenged the Maliki government through its demand for early elections and power-sharing in Kirkuk had an eminently cross-sectarian composition, and no matter how the media likes to spin it, the recent sacking of the police commander in Diyala did pit some powerful Shiite players against each other – but American policy fails to respond to this reality.

Thankfully, there is growing attention to these cross-sectarian trends at least among some US analysts. There has been some debate as to the usefulness or otherwise of a new nomenclature introduced by USIP’s Sam Parker that employs the terms “The Powers That Be” and “The Powers That Aren’t” to describe the real battlefronts in Iraqi politics, with some critics finding the dichotomy pretentious and nothing more than a new name for “government and opposition”. However, that overlooks the way in which Parker’s concepts clearly augment our understanding of Iraq: they define the glue that holds the government together, and provide a very good point of departure for discussing those ideological pressures that threaten the survival of Maliki and which should be taken into account in any serious discussion of future US policy.(1)

Barack Obama, though, has yet to discover the usefulness of these concepts. During his recent trip to the Middle East, he revealed an extremely dated way of thinking about Iraq, more or less reiterating the Iraq cosmology of those Bush administration officials that have been in charge since 2003. During a press conference in Amman on 22 July following a visit to Anbar where meetings with “Sunni tribal leaders” were high on the agenda, this tendency could be seen very clearly, with Obama consistently portraying the principal dynamic of Iraqi politics as a struggle between Shiites and Sunnis. For example, Obama opined: “I think resolving the big issues like the hydrocarbons law in a way that gives Sunnis the impression that their voice is heard, that’s going to be important.” In fact, the real problem with regard to the hydrocarbons law is that two Kurdish parties insist on the right of federal regions to sign contracts with foreign compaines, whereas almost all the other parties – in this case Sunnis and Shiites alike, and including some of those Shiites that normally are quite pro-Kurdish – favour a more centralised system. Most Iraqis are confident that a purely demographic distribution system based on governorates (not sects!) will be adopted, and see the American quest for a “Sunni quota” as out of touch with Iraqi traditions of centralised government. Again, Obama: “Now, the willingness of Sunni cabinet members who have resigned to now return, to have those cabinet seats filled, and a sense that the Sunnis are going to participate aggressively in the upcoming elections, that, again, is I think a sign of progress.” Once more, very few analysts that have done work on Iraq before 2003 think the return to the government of the tiny Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) would be of any consequence whatsoever. With or without the IIP in their ranks, Maliki and his team will still fail to bring significant change to Iraq and a less sectarian political system of the kind that a majority of parliamentarians are calling for.

Arguably, the addition of Joe Biden to the Obama ticket might aggravate these tendencies, because in the past Biden has been a leading American voice in promoting an interpretation of Iraq as a country of three mutually hostile and internally stable population blocks. His various “plans for Iraq”, while frequently misunderstood, in different ways reinforce the view that the main problem in Iraq has to do with a centralised state structure and coexistence issues. Like many others in American politics, Biden has failed to acknowledge the emerging non-sectarian trends in Iraq, seeking instead to push ideas about “Sunni federalism” during his visit to the Anbar governorate. Remarkably, however, it seems that Biden may have cleaned up his Iraq rhetoric as part of his VP bid. At least, it is quite conspicuous how every trace of his “plan for Iraq” now appears to have been erased from his website at joebiden.com, where he now instead supports Barrack Obama’s more general argument about shifting the focus to Afghanistan. Also, at some point between April 2008 and today, Biden’s website specifically devoted to his soft partition schemes, www.planforiraq.com, was quietly shut down – at this site, Biden’s rhetoric had consistently focused on a tripartite Iraq to the very end. Only on his Senate website traces of his Iraq policy remain, but even there a more toned-down version appears, with the emphasis on a general push for federalisation. This is still in contravention of the Iraqi constitution (which specifically rejects any kind of elite-driven federalisation process) but it could perhaps mean that Biden increasingly realises that his plans were unsustainable and that trends in Iraq militate against them.

Still, for Iraq this seems to be a stark choice. On the one hand, there is McCain, who looks set to persevere with the Bush policy of handling Iraq primarily through military power instead of working for a more truly inclusive political system. With its systematic promotion to top positions in the new Iraq of some of the most sectarian, pro-Iranian and unprofessional cliques among Iraq’s 18 million (and mostly Iraqi nationalist) Shiites, this contradictive policy seems so obviously antithetical to long-term American interests that it is really hard to make sense of (except if one does what should be the unthinkable and puts it in the frightening context of a grander plan to eventually force regime change in Iran as well, in which case the rationale for these leaders to hold on to the Iranian connection would disappear). Democrats appear to be equally ignorant about the survival of Iraqi nationalist sentiment, but they express this in a different policy: acceptance of Iranian influence in Iraq as something natural. This was even written into Obama’s “New Strategy for a New World”, released in mid-July. Commenting on Iraq, Obama writes, “Iraq is not going to be a perfect place…we are not going to … eliminate every trace of Iranian influence”. He seems unaware that this particular statement may be seen as deeply offensive by many Iraqi Shiites who are proud of their Iraqi identity but fearful of Iran and the pro-Iranian elites that have been empowered by the Bush administration. Their fear is that a new Democratic administration will accord Iran exaggerated influence in Iraq as part of a grand, Dayton-style regional settlement designed as an antidote to the Bush administration’s unilateralist policies.

Of course, Obama’s stance flows from a multi-lateralist attitude which in itself is laudable. In general, it makes sense for the United States to rely more on national and regional equilibriums than to seek to micro-manage in the name of democracy. But in the specific case of Iraq, there is a responsibility for correcting past mistakes as part of a viable exit strategy. Democrats cannot simply close their eyes and imagine that the Iraq of 2008 in any way represents a natural state of affairs, and that a quick withdrawal automatically will prompt some kind of Hobbesian reset whereby the country will find back to its true self. Real change in Iraq would mean that Obama realised that for five years straight the United States has promoted and consolidated an artificial sectarian system in the country, and that disengagement from Iraq should also aim at reversing this trend. The real challenge is not to reconcile Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds but to bring Powers That Aren’t into the system. The instrument to do this is not some kind of federalism magic or a complex oil distribution formula, but to move away from the sectarian quota system more generally and towards a traditional state model with autonomy for the Kurds and more modest decentralisation in the rest of the country. And Biden should remember that the only thing that is artificial about today’s Iraq is the particular selection of sectarian leaders that the Bush administration has anointed to lead the country, and the exaggerated Iranian influence that comes with some of them.

Also on this subject:
Partition Iraq? Imperial Iraq Strategies from Sulayman the Magnificent to Joseph R. Biden
(Notes for a lecture presented at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan and George Washington University, 11–15 January 2008)
Nonsense of Congress on Federalism in Iraq (13 December 2007)
The US Senate Votes to Partition Iraq. Softly. (27 September 2007)

(1) Sam Parker with the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) explains the Powers That Be/Powers That Aren’t (PTB/PTA) dichotomy as follows: The PTB/PTA dynamic is different from “government” and “opposition” in two important ways. First, PTA includes the Awakenings, Sadris, emerging nationalist groups, tribal leaders, etc. who either aren’t represented in governing institutions at all or, in the case of the Sadris, for whom there is a tenuous relationship between the militant street movement and the guys in the COR. Moreover, many of these groups, first the Sadris and now the Awakenings (and whoever gets rolled up with these two groups along the way), are facing active, military persecution by the PTB. There is an intense effort to keep them shut out of all governing institutions. This portion of the PTA cannot accurately be described as “opposition” in any sense. They are too disenfranchised to be the opposition, and they’re surely not in parliament.

Second, it is true that the PTA also does include the parliamentary opposition. But even here, opposition/government doesn’t adequately convey the dynamics. In a normal parliamentary political system, there is an assumption that the government can be voted out and replaced, that this transition of power will occur peacefully as a result of everyone following the rules. But what if you have a ruling coalition that never intends to share power if it can get away with it, openly flouts parliamentary procedure, owns the “state” security services in a way that is very unlikely to be transferrable, all within a set of governing institutions that has not once experienced a peaceful transition of power? The PTB are trying to lock up and shut down the political system, whatever rudiments of democratic institutions may be formally in place. Opposition/government does not convey any of this dynamic. However, it is exactly this dynamic of being “shut out” that the “street” PTA and the parliamentary PTA share, and what I think is captured by the PTA/PTB dichotomy.

>Experience the 2008 IRAQ FORUM

>The humanitarian impact of the war in Iraq is one of the most ignored and urgent crises of our time. To bring more attention to the crisis, EPIC organized Iraq Action Days – a joint initiative of more than 20 organizations – bringing hundreds of constituents to Washington DC to demand humanitarian action for peace in Iraq.

A major part of Iraq Action Days is The 2008 IRAQ FORUM: a series of panels and lectures by the best minds on Iraq, including United Nations and government officials, human rights advocates, aid workers and leading experts from Iraq and the region. Thanks to participation from activists across the country, the Q and A discussion was lively and extremely informative, particularly in challenging government officials to do more. For the first time, you can watch the 2008 IRAQ FORUM online in its entirety.

Become part of the experience. Watch the 2008 IRAQ FORUM now.


Introduction (4:17) from Sarah Shannon on Vimeo.

What are the latest trends in violence? How are innocent civilians affected by the conflict? Why is so little known about the second largest displaced population in the world? What is being done and what must still be done to help vulnerable Iraqis? The 2008 IRAQ FORUM addresses these questions and more.

Video caption: Opening remarks by MC Zahir Janmohamed from Amnesty International and Erik Gustafson of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center.(IRAQ FORUM, April 14, 2008).

>Putting Iraq’s Budget Surplus into Context

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More than 2 million Iraqis have fled the country, while another 2.8 million people are internally displaced. To make matter worse, Iraqis are facing the worst drought in ten years. Millions live in hunger or fear of starvation.

Meanwhile here in the U.S., the lead Iraq story is the Iraqi government’s budget surplus. A new GAO report projects that Iraq’s cumulative budget surplus could reach as high as $79 billion by year’s end. Pundits and politicians are asking: “They have the money so what’s the problem?” The problem begins with decades of war, tyranny and sanctions that hampered Iraq’s development. Then the U.S. toppled Iraq’s government, allowed government ministries to be looted and destroyed, dismissed civil servants with any ties to Saddam’s Baath Party, disbanded Iraq’s military, created a security vacuum, which led many Iraqi professionals to flee the country.

Last Friday, a New York Times editorial declared: “Iraq now lacks the trained professionals to prepare and execute budgets and to solicit, award and oversee capital projects. The United States must redouble its efforts to help Iraq build this capacity, including bringing back skilled Iraqis who have fled the country.”

Yes, Iraq’s government can and must do better. But at the same time, as both the GAO report and New York Times point out, the U.S. is NOT off the hook. Until Iraq’s government is fully functional, the U.S. has a moral and international obligation to address the unmet humanitarian needs of vulnerable Iraqis, and to work with the international community to provide technical capacity-building assistance to Iraq’s government.

On a national, provincial, and municipal level, assistance is needed to build up:

  • Institutional Capacities – Policies, strategies and implementing tools are in place to ensure efficient coordination and management of aid.
  • Human Capacities – Skilled, trained personnel are in place to implement policies and strategies, and to maintain the government-donor interface.
  • Structural / Economic Capacities – Capacity of the recipient country’s economy to absorb additional aid with minimal distortion (“dutch disease”) etc.

Progress in building up Iraq’s capacities would not only allow implementing agencies to spend down their budgets, it would have a profound impact on the security, health and welfare of Iraq’s 27 million people. For more about Iraq’s budget surplus and other ongoing challenges facing Iraqi officials, see Reports: 8/6/2008 below.

Photo caption: A man sows a crop on a dry field on the outskirts of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, July 2, 2008. It’s been a year of drought and sand storms across Iraq, a dry spell that has devastated the country’s crucial wheat crop and created new worries about the safety of drinking water (AP Photo by Alaa Al-Marjani).

>A Vicious Cycle: Violence and Displacement in Iraq

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Last week, we attended an panel discussion with Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group (ICG) and Michel Gabaudan of UNHCR: the UN Refugee Agency at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They discussed the findings of ICG’s new report, Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon“, which underscores the deepening crisis and failure of the Iraqi government and wider international community to meet the needs of vulnerable Iraqis.

Hilterman and Gabaudan strongly agree that Iraq’s stability can be improved by addressing the displacement crisis. The ICG Report describes how the forced exodus of millions of Iraqis profoundly impacts the security situation, an interaction generally overlooked by the American public.

Triggered by the violence in Iraq, the refugee crisis indirectly helps sustain and finance it [insurgency]. Armed groups whose actions led Iraqis to flee eagerly seized the properties they abandoned, either allocating them to supporters and co-religionists or selling them to generate funds. Such large-scale expropriation likely will fuel future strife if and when refugees return and try to reclaim their homes. As refugees fled, they often were robbed by armed militias and criminal gangs or charged levies at unofficial checkpoints manned by armed groups. Moreover, the exodus contributed to the sectarian homogenization of formerly mixed neighborhoods; this enabled armed groups to consolidate their control, recruit new fighters and levy taxes and fees to bankroll their violent activities. All in all, militias and armed groups exploited the refugee crisis for self-enrichment and war racketeering.

As the ICG Report demonstrates, the humanitarian crisis and security situation are directly connected and both must be addressed to create stability. Furthermore, the panelists discussed how, at play in Iraq right now is a destabilizing and vicious cycle with violence causing displacement, which incites further violence. The report examines other ways in which the cycle manifests itself:

The mass exodus jeopardized Iraq’s stability in yet another way. Many who left are professionals and administrators from the middle class. A shortage of such skilled laborers and managers inevitably hinders reconstruction. The reverse also is true: among those who remained are many who benefited from patronage or political protection. Having taken de facto control of the state’s mid-management levels, they will not readily relinquish their gains. In other words, the refugee crisis further politicized the bureaucracy. Overall, these dynamics have given rise to a vicious economic cycle: violence triggers flight, flight hampers reconstruction, and faltering reconstruction in turn fuels violence.

Hiltermann and Gabaudan stressed that the humanitarian crisis in Iraq is directly linked to security conditions, and therefore national stability. During the forum, Hiltermann noted that this serves as the perfect example of a “crossover issue where humanitarian issues have a great impact on the issue of stability and peace.”

To create a more peaceful and secure Iraq, this destabilizing cycle of violence and displacement must be halted. Actively confronting the humanitarian crisis and addressing the needs of vulnerable Iraqis will help bring about stability and security to the nation and facilitate a safe environment for all Iraqis.

Photo Caption: Dr. Joost Hiltermann on the NewsHour on PBS

>The State of Iraq’s Public Health: a Ground’s Eye View from Baghdad

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On July 24, EPIC had the pleasure of hosting a discussion with Doctor Kadum Al Hilfy, an Iraqi physician visiting the United States for two months (he returned to Iraq in late July). The gathering was an intimate group NGO community at Amnesty International USA. Dr. Al Hilfy, the 2006 Middle East Doctor of the Year, presented the findings of the World Health Organization’s Iraq Family Health Survey (2007) and shared his firsthand perspective on the state of public health in Iraq.

To collect data, the survey was administered to 9,345 households, including surveying 14,675 women of reproductive age, in over 1,000 neighborhoods and villages in Iraq between 2006 and 2007. It is the first family Health survey to cover all governorates in Iraq by regions and by urban and rural residence.

View Dr. Al Hilfy’s PowerPoint Presentation (PowerPoint 5.6MB)

The IFHS was conducted to update and expand the Iraqi national health database through health indicators, such as women’s morbidity and mortality; and measures of disparities in health. The major concern that Dr. Al Hilfy communicated to the group was the accessibility of healthcare, which is strongly influenced by the security situation. According to the doctor, “the main health indicators will deteriorate if the security situation does not improve in the near future…the use of health facilities will decrease as the security situation gets worse, preventing access to preventative and curative healthcare.” It is important to keep in mind that this survey was first administered in 2006, before we started seeing security improvements. However, as the doctor reiterated, access to healthcare remains a huge concern.

How do Iraqis pay for healthcare? The report finds that about one third, 29.8%, said that they had to borrow the money from relatives, friends, or from other sources, while 7.6% relied on selling items and 5.5% used savings to pay for health services. In Kurdistan, the numbers are similar: 24.9% borrowed from relatives or friends, 12.3% used savings, and 5.4% depend on selling items.

A household becomes impoverished when a high proportion of its money is allocated for healthcare payments. The IFHS survey shows that this process occurred in 7.6% of households. Furthermore, about 10% of the non-poor households will become impoverished because of healthcare payments. More often those living in rural areas are impoverished because of healthcare payment (9.2%) than those living in urban areas (6.8%). Dr. Al Hilfy also spoke about the prevalence of domestic violence in Iraq and the difficulties faced in determining the true level that exists:

Collection of data on domestic violence is challenging due to a culture of silence that surrounds the topic. Asking about violence, especially in households where the perpetrator may be present at the time of the interview, also carries the risk of further violence. The IFHS therefore adhered to rigorous ethical and safety standards related to the investigation of domestic violence. It was possible to obtain privacy in 95.6% of the interviews conducted. In the remaining 4.4% of the interviews privacy could not be secured.

In total, 33.4% of women report at least one form of emotional violence. The acts of emotional violence reported by the greatest number of women are the husband belittling or insulting her (22.3%), humiliating her in front of others (21.7%), and scaring or intimidating her (18.3%). The youngest age group report the lowest levels of emotional violence, with 29.2% of 15 to 24 year olds reporting at lest one act of emotional violence. The age group with the highest percentage of women who report having experienced at least one or more attack of emotional violence is the oldest age group, with 26.8% reporting at least one act.

For more information on women’s health I explored Women for Women’s 2008 Stronger Women Stronger Nations report. According to the report, “63.9% of respondents stated that violence against women in general was increasing. In central Iraq and Baghdad, this number jumps to 91.9% and 72.0%, respectively.”

Dr. Al Hilfy also discussed mental health in Iraq, which is a serious concern: roughly 40% of males and 30% of females report high emotional distress. However, Dr. Al Hilfy noted that there is an increasing emphasis in the health community on mental health, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is defined by the American Psychological Association as a psychological condition experienced by a person who had faced a traumatic event which caused a catastrophic stressor outside the range of usual human experience (an event such as war, torture, rape, or natural disaster). Due to the conditions in Iraq, many citizens have been exposed to conditions that are completely beyond the scope of average life. The intense changes made to their society coupled with the breakdown of structure and peace in communities has greatly impacted the mental and physical health of Iraqi populations.

Over half of the respondents had felt nervous, tense or worried in the previous 30 days. A large proration of the respondents also indicate that they are easily tired, often have headaches, and also feel tired all the time. 3.5% of the respondents stated that they thought of ending their own life, while 7.8% thought that they were a worthless person at some point in the month before the survey.

We would like to thank Dr. Al Hilfy for sharing his expertise and unique perspective of the public health sector in Iraq with us and commend him for his efforts to improve healthcare for all Iraqis.

Photo Caption: Dr. Thamer Kadum Yousif Al Hilfy discusses the current state of the public health sector in Iraq.