Transcript of Podcast #31: Reconstructing Iraq After ISIS

Due to some difficulty with audio, below is a transcript of our IRAQ MATTERS Podcast #31: Reconstructing Iraq After ISIS.
To listen to this episode, click here.

Erik Gustafson: You are listening to Iraq Matters, a production of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center in Washington, DC. I am Erik Gustafson.

As Iraqi forces near victory against ISIS militants in Mosul, policymakers in Baghdad now face the daunting task of restoring infrastructure and essential services in cities and territory damaged by three years of brutal occupation and war. The costs of such work in Mosul alone could rise above $100 billion over the course of 10 years, while elsewhere the Iraqi government faces similar multi-billion dollar price-tags. Failing to meet these costs could foster future instability. Finding the financial and material resources to meet these challenges will prove critical as Iraq moves beyond the ISIS nightmare.

On this edition of Iraq Matters, we are honored to welcome Dr. Mustafa al-Hiti, President of the Reconstruction Fund for Areas Affected by Terroristic Operations. The Fund was established by the Government of Iraq in 2015 to coordinate urgent reconstruction activities in areas destroyed by ISIS, to develop plans for mid- and long-term reconstruction, and to serve as the link between international organizations and Iraqi government ministries. Dr. al-Hiti, thank you so much for joining us today. Could you describe for our listeners the level of need that Iraq is facing today, not just in Mosul, but throughout the country? How are families in some of Iraq’s most devastated areas getting by?

Dr. Mustafa al-Hiti: People in those areas need everything. I mean you cannot imagine it. They need shelter; they need food; they need water; they need medicine. I mean all these requirements, they need. So the people, they are really in need for everything. So anything you can possibly name would be very much appreciated. Even a glass of water. You don’t think sometimes that… maybe you think a glass of water can do anything. Yes, it can save a life. I mean specially formed units for the small children, you know. In very hot weather in Iraq. The temperatures are very high, they are drying, so it is very important for example. You think it is very cheap, but at least when we say water, drinkable water, what you call clean water for example.

Gustafson: I understand you were recently in Mosul, on the east and west side, and you saw with your own eyes the scale of devastation. Just for our listeners who might not have seen these images yet, what are we talking about? What are these cities like?

Hiti: Just to make the story short, and the imagination can go from that: There is some documentary footage we have seen that is from World War 2, and it is the same story. I mean people are running for their lives. You see it in their faces, pale faces, hungry, carrying what you call the smallest luggage that they have with them. Maybe they use it for something to cover themselves, or maybe some dry kind of foods. They need it. So the side of the road you can find what you call a kind of destruction and damage for the pavement. You have to change your way or your route from here to there. Burned cars in the road, diminished buildings, houses. Again, I can say to you it is a scene which is familiar, you might see it from a film or movie, but it is a real situation.

Gustafson: Like Dresden after World War 2.

Hiti: Believe me, it is the same story. So it gives two kinds of feelings. The feeling of how much the people are suffering, on one hand. The fear, as well, on their faces. Sometimes you think you cannot do anything with such a huge thing, in the face of that, but of course it takes time.

Gustafson: Well of course we’re talking at a very pivotal time. As we speak right now, Iraqi Security Forces are closing in on the last stand of ISIS in Mosul, and soon we’ll be joining with Iraqis in celebrating Mosul being free of ISIS. At the same time, cities like Ramadi, Heat, Fallujah, have begun to rebuild. All worthy of celebration. What are the first steps in that process of rebuilding, and how do you measure success in reconstruction?

Hiti: Well just to tell the audience something: we separate the process in a whole to first of all what we call the stabilization process, where the people just come to their cities. And the reconstruction or rebuilding, which is the next phase. Usually, to be distinguished between the two things, as I said, maybe emergency supplies, like food, medicine, camps. Because sometimes you come and you find a whole area, a village destroyed completely, for example, so you have to build a camp for them. They return to their places, and then you have to manage the schools, the drinking water, all these things. So it is a part of what we call the stabilization of that area. Then the reconstruction. Reconstruction starts 90 days after the stabilization process. This means first of all assessment of the estimate of the project. Defining the project to be rehabilitated, rebuilt. And then the assessment of the money you need for this process. And then you go between the locals, the governor… to find a priority of these projects. We have to sit together. And usually, for our office, RFAATO, we try to mix up all these ideas, between the governorate officials and the people of that area, through communications, consulting. Sit together, in order to put priority, and then you start these projects. Again, either being done by RFAATO or the [OJIT?] or you will sit with the World Bank and start these processes in the chain.

Gustafson: I understand that you were involved in the reconstruction process after 2003. What lessons were learned from that that might be applied to the current situation?

Hiti: Well at that time there was a concentration in rebuilding the roads and going for infrastructure. Not much being done to build up the capability of the people. Or immunization of the people against extreme ideas, which I think is a mistake, or… I don’t know what they call it. I mean the concept was built for the infrastructure. Not building up the…

Gustafson: The human capability.

Hiti: The human capability. I think this is the first lesson which we have learned. That’s why in the new process we have put three dimensions in our process. That any projects being built and finished, it is not a place to hire people to do the job. It is not finding a job for people who are managing this place. It is a place where it should give a service for the people. Unless people working in this for the staff… they want to deliver, and they have to deliver services for the people. They cannot do that, it means we have to treat them… that’s why the reconstruction project, it puts telephone numbers and emails of everybody. If there is any complaint, from those centers, then the feedback will try to change the staff. Because we need those humans, the beneficiaries to feel that this building belongs to them, that it is not for the government, which is the idea that in 2003, they think those premises are for the government. That’s why their reaction is not protecting them, due to a reason for other. They have to think it is for them. They have to defend it by themselves.

Gustafson: The need to rebuild electric grids, water mains, schools, and roads, is very clear. What you were describing, like a post-World War 2, Dresden type scenario. Apart from these brick and mortar projects, what else needs to be done to rebuild civil society and help these communities recover? And how do you work with local leaders to identify and move their needs forward?

Hiti: Well, regarding the social needs really, or how to get rid of the trauma, first of all. And immunization against new radical ideas, because you know, al Qaeda, ISIS, we don’t know who’s coming. So I think the main thing we have to put as a concern is the educational system. Somebody, sometime, some organization, should put a weight on this subject. It is the heart of reform in Iraq. Unless we change the educational system from different aspects. I mean not just the way of lecturing or the education, turning from learning by heart to critical thinking. This is one. Even the syllabus has to be changed really, to go with the modern ideas. Maybe we find some difficulty religious studies, but at least we can go for the part of the religion which gives a great weight upon forgiveness and peace. We can say going for moderate Islam rather that radical ideas or extreme ideas. That’s what I’m saying. Educational system can make the heart of change in the reform of economy, reform of the banking system, legal system. We have to be concerned about education. It is very important. The way of the lecture, going from learning by heart to critical thinking is an important one. And really, regarding religious thoughts, we have to go for the safe side for that, which is rich in Islam.

Gustafson: How would you characterize the global response to Iraq’s situation, and the commitments that foreign governments that you’ve received from foreign governments so far?

Hiti: Well, nobody can forget or at least not knowing… but the global commitment is great. I mean liberation in the last part for Mosul… it started from a number to create saba’a ithnayn [seven two?] so the global community really responds very high. Unless we have the world community with us, Iraq will be fragmented, and the damage will be not just for Iraq, but for the whole area, and maybe the whole world. That’s why we are thinking, during those next days, that this victory, the military, it should be continued by changing the ideology, transforming the global college to rebuild Iraq, which I think is possible.

Gustafson: So not only military victories, but now moving toward rebuilding…

Hiti: It is the hardest, I think, the hardest way. But this is the only way by which you will be satisfied that no more radical ideas will come back.

Gustafson: According to your website, part of the fund’s mandate is to ensure international standards for accountability are met, and to strengthen the confidence of international donors and the World Bank in Iraq’s institutions. What are the greatest challenges before you on this front?

Hiti: This is a great question. I mean a lot of our office, the staff really, are being selected in a very honest way, and now choosing people with experience, and a good reputation. And so far we have done a lot of projects. 152 projects being done between November 2016 and January 2017. This is the end of the fiscal year. I can see completely, no corruption being noticed, or feedback, or any complaint by the people of Iraq. And the corporation of the World Bank, it has increased the capability of our staff to try to harmonize the standards of Iraq with the international community, and we are following that. So far, I think we are satisfied, and the World Bank in a statement by the regional manager, in 2016, I think November, he announced that the project is going well and the Iraqis are doing well. So it was a good sign for the Iraqis. That is why the KFW, or the German loan comes after this announcement. The Kuwaiti grant, the Chinese grant. So it means there is a confidence in the way which we are dealing with the coordination and execution and implementation of the project from the federal budget so far.

Gustafson: And we had talked earlier before the interview began, you were talking about how in some of the specific mechanisms, that now there are audits that are done with some of these projects, is that correct?

Hiti: Yes, I mean with the World Bank and the international budget, certainly dispersal of the money should go with the implementation process. And there is auditors, technical auditors, financial auditors. We don’t know them, necessarily.

Gustafson: So they’re independent?

Hiti: Yes, independent, either from the World Bank, and certainly the reports coming from RFAATO, lines will be checked and crossed with the auditor reports. And no part was raised upon… there might be a slight until literary move… so in fact a number of things is going rapidly. And hopefully we are always setting work up between the World Bank, the Line Nursery [?], RFAATO, and to present the project and see where exactly, and why. And so there is a frequent fellow up for the process. And so far, this is alright.

Gustafson: Ensuring a traditional sense of security for cities and towns under reconstruction is critical for civilian protection and lasting peace. How do concerns about continued violence factor into the rebuilding process?

Hiti: Well certainly there is sometimes some of those terroristic groups, they might appear. Not in a high number, I mean, some of those fundamentalists, they will do some kind of attack. But usually it is some kind of suicidal ones. As I say again, we need to immunize the people. And then over time, you will find the people start to cooperate with the government. And there is some people that remain with the IDPs, those terroristic groups. People they have started to give those people their name to the government, in order to secure the places. So no one of the 150 projects being done by the World Bank being re-attacked again. Not one incident of that. So it means that the things are going okay. Although the government, the security forces, the national ones or the guards, they are doing their job well. There are so many checkpoints to filter those people. I can say that the security now could reach up to 80%. You cannot say completely, because there is some pockets here and there.

Gustafson: What do you and the fund count among your greatest successes so far? In addition to the successes, what are your immediate priorities as a head of this important body?

Hiti: Again, I mean, the mission is that we need to transform the help to defeat ISIS from the global coalition to rebuilding Iraq. This is the big picture which we are looking for, in order to secure the people and help with the reconciliation process, as well. To create jobs for the people in there. All these things, it is not at range [?], but we are working to put it in the very near future, in the hands of the people there. Because usually they need to have a job, they need to find themselves useful for their society. So there is a concern for those people, in our work. Usually, when we work and hire people or make new projects, especially in the university, we would like to make what we call to call sites of engagement when there is some kind of project. I do remember, for our Lambar University [?] the technical institute in Sakhlawieh [?], both of these instances we gave them the tools for the work, and they were happy really, to do the work of reconstructing the university. That why I think that engaging them in such a project… Again, for one reason or another, if the terrorists come again, they will defend what they feel is their belongings. It is not the government’s. We found such a thing in the young people in Iraq.

Gustafson: And I imagine that that’s one of the challenges of the reconstruction, is revitalizing these opportunities so that it creates opportunities for jobs… you have the economic life of the area coming back.

Hiti: As I told you, by itself the reconstruction means finding jobs for the people to work, to build their houses, offices, universities, health centers, roads bridges. So it means the creation of jobs for the people in there. So I think this by itself, without the immunization through training and the educational system. Altogether it will make a better society.

Gustafson: With the educational sector, what commitments have been made so far to provide so far to meet the funding needed? And what are you seeing from Baghdad?

Hiti: Until now, we are addressing such a speech to the government, to society. And we need the help. If we go for example, to the tuning [?] of university, tuning of school, tuning of college, this will be very important. I think that for young people, for students, they like the idea. So what we need really, we need from relevant universities, colleges, educational institutes to make some offer to the Iraqi institute to do such a kind of tuning. I think that by itself is going to make a major change in the educational system. It is going to be like a movement for the Iraqi students. And they ask the Parliament, and the Iraqi government to go for the reform of the educational system. So you can make it a mass pressure against the government in order to force them to do the changes. I mean not just sit and then the government will do it. I mean, this is a political situation, some of the people don’t like the things to go the right way. So it means mass pushing and pressure upon the government to do the change. So we need the institute, the formal institute, the liberal… first wave industrial countries to come to the Iraqis to help.

Gustafson: I understand your role is in coalescing support from the international community, and the world governments. But for our listeners interested in helping Iraq rebuild and move past the ISIS nightmare, what can they do? What can ordinary Americans do? And also, of course, there’s a very important Iraqi American community, the Iraqi diaspora. What role can the Iraqi diaspora play in helping Iraq rebuild?

Hiti: Well, I think that question can be divided into two questions. First of all for the Americans, or the locals, what they can do. Again, they have their Parliament member. They can ask them to do any kind of help. Either physical one, or things related to helping secure the Iraqis. Believe me, any book coming to Iraqi is helpful. Any pen or pencil or paper. Any kind of food, things like that. Medicine, everything. If all those taxpayers put some kind of pressure on the government to help the Iraqis, it will be good. It will be nice, and the Iraqis will be very grateful for it. For the Iraqis, skilled personnel who aren’t here. I think they have to have contact with their relevant professional institutions. And for us, RFAATO, if they want to contact us by the address, telephone, email, we can arrange the meeting with the relevant ministries. Contractors, pharmacists, engineers… I think now that we can say, for the reconstruction fund, certainly we need the help of the engineers. Any idea, any consultancy will be appreciated. And we have a transparent kind of relationship in the reconstruction. There is so many contractors in Iraq. They can come and supervise, for example, and make sure the job is in accordance with state of art. So anything like that will be helpful.

Gustafson: Well thank you so much, not only for being here today, but for the vital work that you are doing to help Iraq rebuild and recover, for current and future generations. Is there anything else that you would like to share with our listeners at this time?

Hiti: Well really, you and your group, having a concern about people who are thousands of miles abroad, but you are thinking that we are humans. In order to stabilize the peace of the world, we have to cooperate together. I think these radical ideas are like viruses, that can be transferred from one society to another. So if we can just close it and eradicate it, for the nation and all the human community. Thank you very much indeed.

Gustafson: Thank you so much, a pleasure. You can listen to past and future editions of IRAQ MATTERS on iTunes, Soundcloud, or directly on our website at And be sure to follow us on Twitter @enablingpeace. For the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, I’m Erik Gustafson, reminding you that Iraq Matters.