Episode 12: Our BIG Season Finale: Celebrating Why Iraq Matters

Karzan Fadhil and Tania Jalil participating in PHOTOVOICE IRAQ at American University of Iraq – Sulaimani (AUIS)

They’re smart, motivated, and ready to change the world. Who? They are the young participants of Iraq’s first ever PhotoVoice project.

In our season finale, EPIC Program Associate Taif Jany chats with Executive Director Erik Gustafson about his most recent trip to the American University of Iraq – Sulaimani (AUIS) with PHOTOVOICE IRAQ – EPIC’s innovative initiative to empower young Iraqis.

Since its debut in August 2013, IRAQ MATTERS has been a unique, informative, and exciting resource that shines a light on Iraq and delivers different perspectives on the region that you will not get anywhere else.

To mark the end of our first season, we look back at some of our favorite moments, including excerpts from our interviews with:

  • Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak from Episode 11: Bridging Cultures through Higher Education (16:36)
  • David Slater, Chris Sullivan, and Lynne Schneider from Episode 7: Veterans Perspectives on Iraq (18:40)
  • Kyle Long from Episode 4: Higher Education in Iraq (23:42)
  • Bilal Wahab from Episode 3: Is Iraq’s Oil a Blessing or a Curse? (24:50)
  • Yasmeen Alamiri from Episode 8: Covering the White House a Conversation with Yasmeen Alamiri (27:06)
  • Ahmed Ali from Episode 2: Party Politics in Iraq (31:00)
  • Christine Van Den Toorn from Episode 10: Is Peace in Iraq Possible? The Story of “Little Iraq” (32:45)

We’re also extremely pleased to announce that our petition on Change.org to Put Iraq Back on the Agenda has exceeded our initial goal of 10,000 signatures. However, our work is not over yet. We ask you to spread the word and share our petition with your families and friends. Our message becomes stronger and more effective with more EPIC members like YOU supporting our cause.

Make sure that you stay tuned until the end of this episode for a sneak peak of our next season of IRAQ MATTERS. We will be talking to a lineup of fascinating guests who offer distinctly refreshing – even surprising – perspectives on Iraq, lessons from the past, and insights about the future.

Never miss an episode by subscribing to our iTunes, Stitcher, and YouTube channels, if you would like to get the most current episodes from our upcoming season of IRAQ MATTERS. And don’t forget to help us spread the word by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We love to hear from you, so feel free to leave us a comment or a suggestion for our next episodes!

Support bringing PHOTOVOICE IRAQ to Baghdad, and other projects on the field, by considering a tax-deductible donation to the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC): DONATE HERE

It’s Not Just Elections, It’s a Crossroads for a Nation’s Future

Iraqi officials prepare for the upcoming elections. Photo from IHEC.
Iraqi officials prepare for the upcoming elections. Photo from IHEC.

If all goes as planned, Iraqis will head to the polls on 30 April 2014 for the first national parliamentary elections since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces. Iraq’s incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is seeking a third consecutive term, despite his government’s chronic failure to promote good governance, better security, or national reconciliation.

The Atlantic’s Defense One reports, these elections mark a crossroads moment for the nation’s future: “…today Iraq is in chaos, with deadly violence, a dysfunctional government and a thriving al-Qaeda-aligned insurgency gaining hold in cities that Americans gave their lives to secure.” In February alone, at least 700 deaths were reported in Iraq. Additional deaths in Anbar province have been reported, although unconfirmed, due to the inability of United Nations officials to safely access the area.

The newly elected parliament will be charged with forming a government that can forge a path toward better governance, security, and national unity.

These elections will decide the 328 members of the Council of Representatives, the main elected body of Iraq’s national government, for the next four years. The Council of Representatives then elects the President and Vice President. The newly elected President then nominates a Prime Minister from the majority coalition in the Council, and this nomination must then be approved by the Council of Representatives.

Iraqi elections utilize an open-list system, meaning voters choose from a selection of political parties and coalitions. This method of proportional representation apportions 310 seats among Iraq’s 18 governorates. An additional 8 seats are reserved for minority groups (Christian 5, Sabean 1, Shabak 1, and Yizidi 1) and 10 compensatory seats are awarded to the lists that win the most votes nationwide. This system is meant to best accommodate and include Iraq’s widely diverse population.

A vast majority of Iraq’s political parties are based on religion and ethnicity, most notably between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Iraq’s political parties have traditionally banded together to compete as coalitions to maximize gains for the constituencies they represent. The administering body for Iraqi elections, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), released the official list of 39 electoral lists that are running in the upcoming election as coalitions of political parties. Since the last parliamentary elections in 2010, intra-sectarian competition has resulted in the splintering of several political parties and coalitions. In the 2010 parliamentary election, the Iraqi National Movement (aka Iraqiya) became the largest alliance, winning 91 seats. The State of Law Coalition became the second largest alliance, with a total of 89 seats. Other noteworthy parties are the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Iraqi National Accord, and the Sadrist Movement (Ahrar).

Women are not to be overlooked in Iraq’s political sphere. A required one-fourth of the Council of Representatives must be female. In the coming election, there are expected to be over 2,500 women running for positions. This marks the highest participation of women to date.

All candidates running for election must first be approved by the Accountability and Justice Committee (AJC). Candidates face disqualification if found to have any ties to the Ba’ath party, of which Saddam Hussein was affiliated. This process, known as de-Baathification, has been the topic of much controversy since its introduction in 2003. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, the AJC banned 511 candidates from running and 15 political parties, most of whom were Sunni. More than 170 candidates appealed their ban, with only 26 appeals being successful. The IHEC also refused to disqualify 52 candidates. The actions of the AJC have fallen victim to accusations of both unconstitutionality and illegality. British Scholar Toby Dodge reports that Prime Minister Maliki’s direct control of the courts in Iraq has been a source of contention threatening the legitimacy of free and fair elections. Speaking to the nature of de-Baathification, EPIC founder and executive director, Erik Gustafson, agrees: “I would hope that the courts make decisions based on the facts of each case and not based on undue political pressure.”

However, on Tuesday 03/25, the Iraqi parliament and legislature issued differing rulings regarding the controversial clause in Iraqi electoral law allowing for the disqualification of candidates based on reputation. This resulted in the resignation of the entire IHEC board this Tuesday in protest of what they called political and judicial interference in the IHEC’s operations. IHEC spokesman Safa al-Mussawi told Agence French-Presse, “The commission is today caught between two authorities — the legislative and the judicial — and the two have issued contradictory decisions”. With the elections drawing near, it is unclear if these resignations will delay the planned April 30th elections.

The failure to deliver free and fair elections in Iraq opens the nation to a greater possibility for instability. As a means of combatting these and other potential challenges to free and fair elections in Iraq, international observers are necessary to serve as election monitors. In January, Eli Lake’s article in the Daily Beast reported that Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq called on the U.S., international community, and non-governmental organizations “to send election monitors, to ensure through technology there will be no fraud.” Their presence will be an essential safeguard to ensuring the legitimacy of these elections and setting Iraq up for success after the elections.

Despite any challenges facing the upcoming elections, expectations for the elections remain high. Within the current state of violence and a rise of sectarianism, Iraqis have the opportunity to positively change the direction that their country is heading. At a recent event hosted by U.S. Institute of Peace, Iraq’s federal deputy prime minister Rowsch N. Shaways discussed Iraq’s youth as a platform for change. He spoke of their optimism for change and for putting a divided history of sectarianism behind them by saying, “They want to build the country based on being Iraqis.” The question that remains is, will Iraqis have that opportunity to have their voices heard and counted on April 30th?

Eleven Years Later: Sharing My Story for the First Time

Reminiscing about my youth in Iraq

On the evening of March 19, 2003, my family and I were gathered in our home in southern Baghdad watching a government spokesman on television announce that another war was approaching. Just after 9:30pm Baghdad time, we heard the first missiles fly over our rooftops and detonate nearby seconds later.

Sounds like a cool action movie right?! Not really. At that time, I was only 13 years old, and it was the most terrifying event that I had ever experienced. I still remember that night like it was yesterday. Every time I heard an explosion, I would hide under my blanket as though that would be enough to protect me.

What I did not know at the time was that the worst was yet to come.

Subsequent days, months, and years brought further destruction and chaos to Iraq, and soon spread across the region. The escalating violence embraced by sectarian extremists, growing violations of human rights by nearly every party involved in the conflict, and a slow and insufficient humanitarian response to those who were forced to flee their homes only made things worse.

The turmoil soon had its toll on my family. In November 2006, my life was turned upside down. My father was kidnapped on his way back from work, and that morning was the last time I saw him. I did not only lose a father, but also my mentor, hero, and best friend.

Today, 11 years after the war started, not much has improved and Iraq continues to deteriorate. How bad is it? The first week of March 2014 witnessed the loss of more than 400 lives to violence in Iraq. That is in just ONE week! Moreover, the UN reports that nearly 1.5 million Iraqis remain displaced, including tens of thousands fleeing recent violence in Anbar Province.

Since I arrived to the United States in 2008, I learned that this is a country where people can make their dreams come true. I have been dreaming for a long time of connecting Iraqis with Americans and rebuilding the relationship between our two countries. At the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC), I finally have the opportunity to do so.
I have the chance to connect and work with caring individual like you to make Iraq a safer place; a world where children do not have to grow up without a father.

While some in Washington DC would like to conveniently forget what happened to me and my family and countless fellow Iraqis over the past 11 years, you have not. That gives me hope.

My old man always told me: “Taif, whenever you are facing a problem, do what you can to fix it. But if you cannot fix the problem by yourself, remember that there are always many people who will help you.” So, thanks to supporters like you, today we have more than 11,300 signatures on our petition at Change.org to “put Iraq back on the agenda” and urge President Barack Obama to support a clear, long-term strategy for peace in Iraq and the region. To correspond with the 11th anniversary of the fall of Baghdad on April 9, EPIC is preparing to deliver that message directly to the White House and Capitol Hill.

Now is a critical time for you and I to ensure that President Obama and Congress remember America’s enduring responsibility to do what it can to promote peace and heal the wounds of war. Since the President strongly believes in community organizing, we hope that he will seriously consider our message, especially if its backed by strong numbers. That’s where you come in. I would like to ask you to help us gain 4,000 more signatures before April 9th.

This week’s anniversary must be a reminder to all that the crisis is not over, and violations of human rights continue immeasurably. The international community must do more to help rebuild a safer and more stable Iraq that can provide all Iraqis with a better life.

Your support is enormously important to me and to EPIC’s mission. Therefore, I ask you today to not only sign, but to also share EPIC’s petition with your family and friends. The more supporters we have, the stronger and better equipped we become to further our goal of peace in Iraq.

Here are three ways you can help:

(1) Share and promote our petition via Change.org

(2) “Like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

(3) Help us bring peace to Iraq, DONATE HERE

Ambassador Lukman Faily Speaks About Democracy in Iraq


On Tuesday, February 18th, I had the pleasure of hearing Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, speak at American University. The event drew a crowd of around twenty people, most of whom were professors or academics from the university. The ambassador spoke for thirty minutes, accompanied by a slideshow, and subsequently took audience questions for about ten minutes.

The talk focused on Iraq’s democratic transformation. Beginning with tales of Iraq in the Ba’athist era and stretching up until present day, Ambassador Faily argued that the legacy of dictatorship has had a major impact on Iraq’s democratic development. He described how the many years of dictatorship in Iraq have lead to an ongoing challenge of creating a democratic culture. In many ways, the ambassador’s talk was a progress report on where Iraq is in its transition away from dictatorship towards a democratic society.

Highlighting Iraq’s progress, Ambassador Faily pointed to Iraq’s three “free and fair” parliamentary elections that have taken place since 2003. In addition, he argued that Iraq has successfully established a government that respects human rights and is both transparent and accountable. Furthermore, the Ambassador spoke of the Iraqi people’s desire for democracy, supported by strong voter turnout across the country (averaging around 60% in successive parliamentary elections since 2003).

After being asked about the impact of violence from Al-Qaeda linked groups in Iraq, Ambassador Faily conceded that violence is hindering Iraq’s democratic process, but it is not stopping it completely. He downplayed the sectarian dimension of this current conflict, arguing that Sunni political officials want to be an integral part of the government and that both Shias and Sunnis are victims of Al-Qaeda-linked violence.

Indeed, all Iraqis, regardless of ethnicity and religion, have suffered from and are potential targets of violence from al-Qaeda-linked groups. At the same time, Toby Dodge, Juan Cole, and other close observers have argued that sectarianism, which had been greatly exacerbated with growing regional tensions over Syria’s civil war, and the lack of progress in national reconciliation are contributing factors in the violence.

Ambassador Faily’s lecture left me with with some unanswered questions that I believe are fundamental to Iraq’s democratic development. What does the lack of national reconciliation mean for democracy in Iraq? How can the Iraqi government work towards national reconciliation? Finally, what does the United States need to do to help aid Iraq’s reconciliation and reconstruction?

This upcoming April, Mr. Maliki will run for a third term as Prime Minister, leading many people to question his commitment to democracy. This begs the additional question: what effect will Mr. Maliki’s desire to stay Prime Minister of Iraq have on the institutionalization of democratic governance and culture in Iraq? While the answers to these question aren’t completely clear, Ambassador Faily suggested that the first step is creating mutually beneficial relations between Iraq and the United States. This is something EPIC supports wholeheartedly.