Hassan Addresses European Parliament on Iraq

News | November 23, 2017

On November 23, Kawa Hassan, director of EWI's Middle East and North Africa Program, addressed the European Parliament Subcommittee on Security and Defence on the "Civilian CSDP mission to support security sector reform in Iraq." 

Hassan gave a broad analysis on the internal and external challenges faced by Iraq, such as the long-term instability following the U.S. invasion, internal tensions, the war with ISIS, the controversial Kurdish independence referendum, neighbouring conflict in Syria, influence and interventions of regional and global powers and the need for internal political reconciliation and key reforms which would be essential to the stability of the country. He provided the context and justification for the CSDP mission, as the security sector is one of the areas where reform efforts should focus.

You can watch Hassan's adddess here and read the full speech below.

Dear Mrs. Chairman, 

Dear esteemed members of the Subcommittee on Security and Defense, 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good Morning. Thank you very much for the kind invitation of the Sub Committee on Security & Defense. I am delighted and honored to talk again about the latest situation in Iraq. Last time I addressed the committee was a year ago, more precisely it was on 28th of November 2016. Back then I analyzed the political and military dimensions of the Mosul battle against ISIS. Today I have been asked to give a broad analysis on the internal and external challenges faced by Iraq, such as the long-term instability following the U.S. invasion, internal tensions, the war with ISIS, the controversial Kurdish independence referendum, the influence and interventions of regional and global powers and the need for internal political reconciliation and key reforms which would be essential to the stability of the country.  

To begin with, many positive changes have occurred since the last speech- but some of the major issues and challenges remain unaddressed and unresolved. So what has changed exactly? 

First, Iraqi security forces including the army, counter terrorism units, police, Peshmerga, Popular Mobilization Forces (Al Hashd AlShabi) with the support of the international coalition achieved a great milestone against ISIS. The terrorist organization has been driven out of the main urban areas it occupied in 2014 and thereafter. This is a massive military victory that deserves the support and recognition of the international community. But the war against ISIS is not over yet. ISIS is an adaptive, flexible and ruthless terrorist organization. The liberation costs are also monumental.  The scale of social, human and physical destruction is staggering. It is difficult to gain exact and final figures on the numbers of casualties since 2014. But according to official Iraqi authorities the numbers of dead and wounded civilians in all areas liberated from ISIS is somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000, 50% of which have fallen in Mosul. It is thought that thousands are missing in Mosul alone.  According to IOM, as of November 15, the total number of IDPs is around 2.99 million; The KRG's official data puts the number of IDPs and refugees at 1.9 million people, in addition to 183,000, mostly Kurds, who fled Tuz Khormatu and Kirkuk after the takeover of these cities by Iraqi security forces and PMF; the number of returnees as of November 15, 2017 (IOM) is around 2.68 million.; reconstruction could cost nearly 150 billion dollars. The extent of the destruction varies per province, but overall is immense. 

Iraq’s national and foreign debts will most likely have exceeded $125 billion before the end of this year despite growing oil production and revenues, according to IMF.  According to the predictions, the debts will reach around $134 billion by the end of next year despite steady oil production which is expected to raise the current 4.5 million barrels per day (bpd) by 10 percent to 5 billion.

Going forward, the internal and external challenges facing Iraq are daunting. The biggest question therefore is the following: Can the Iraqi government and the major political parties translate the military victory into a sustainable political success? Or after some time will Iraq fall back into a vicious cycle of violence and counter violence? Iraqi leaders bear the main responsibility for answering this question and for solving the major problems; however, the international community including the EU can play an important and constructive role in supporting the reconstruction of both the physical and political infrastructures as well as helping Iraq to transition from a theater for proxy wars to a centerpiece of an inclusive security structure- in short an Iraq that is at peace with itself, its neighbors and the world.   

It might be repetitive but is inevitable and crucial to reiterate the fact that ISIS is a consequence and not the cause of Iraq’s predicament. In a way post-ISIS conceptualization perhaps doesn’t exist. Instead it is more helpful both conceptually and politically to speak of Post-2003 State Building. The real roots of today’s myriad problems should be traced back to the post-2003 political order and not 2014 when ISIS made advances. Without delving into too much detail, it is fair to ascertain that the political system which emerged after the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in 2003 has failed in producing an inclusive state based on citizenship, fair sharing of power and revenues, transparent and accountable governance. This is the case both in Baghdad and Erbil. Perhaps one of the most visible indicators of failed governance is the fact that 14 years on, Iraqi citizens still face immense challenges in getting basic social services due to ubiquitous corruption at the top, despite the fact that Iraq is not a poor country. In a nutshell, the political system is blocked, political leaders that have been ruling the country since 2003 reproduce themselves, and citizens’ confidence in political parties and state institutions is dramatically decreasing. Instead of leading by example and showing statesmanship, main and influential leaders from across the board revert to confrontational sectarian and ethnic rhetoric and policies, and hence are exacerbating existing sectarian and ethnic fault lines and as a result inviting external interventions. Thus the question is how to break this crippling stalemate and turn the tide? 

Needless to say that Iraqi society is not a passive society- it has shown unprecedented resilience against the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, as well as against the authoritarianism and corruption of post-Saddam elites, and against the barbarism of ISIS. The social and political scenes are very dynamic- we need a dynamic understanding of the complex context. Political fragmentation between and within parties in Federal Iraq and Kurdistan Region is order of the day. This could pave the way for further democratization but equally could lead to unrest and military conflicts.  

To be most effective in the long run, the EU’s support to Iraq should address the root causes of the structural crisis, namely corruption at top, political and economic dysfunctionality, and the democratic deficit of the post-2003 state. This support strategy could comprise the following segments:

First, humanitarian and development assistance don’t operate in a political vacuum. Therefore they need to be part of a comprehensive political framework and strategy that aim at enabling real and not cosmetic- reforms in both Baghdad and Erbil. 

Second, security sector reform should aim at gradually decreasing the influence of militias and formal/informal armed groups that are nominally under the command of relevant state ministries and authorities in Baghdad and Erbil but are in reality under the control of powerful political and military leaders. Support has to be conditioned on bringing these groups under the actual and not nominal command and control of trusted, professional Iraqi armed forces and Kurdish ministry of Peshmerga. 

Third, tackling rampant corruption at the top levels is a daunting task but given the population’s disillusionment with ruling elites and civil society’s pressure for transparency and accountability, the EU can count on the support of society for its engagement. However this needs a strategic and long term approach to make sure the system will not reproduce itself. Countering top-down corruption needs strong, professional, apolitical, independent institutions. Support to auditing authorities, central banks, integrity commissions and civil society need to be contingent on non-interference by the government and political parties. Clear cut messages to this effect to Iraqi authorities and political parties is paramount as well as awareness campaigns to inform the population about EU’s engagement in the country.  .

Fourth, Kurdish authorities overplayed their hand by organizing a botched referendum. Kurdistan Regional Government lost almost 50 per cent of territories (so called disputed territories) including Kirkuk (which they took control of in 2003 and 2014), and with it almost 60 percent of their revenues.  According to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN, more than 183 thousand people, mostly Kurds, have been displaced and fled to KRG controlled provinces.- Amnesty International reported that lives of people in Tuz Khurmatu were destroyed, after the Iraqi army and Alhashd Alshabi retook the district. Citing resident accounts, Amnesty said at least 11 civilians were killed by indiscriminate attacks while hundreds of Kurdish properties were looted, set on fire and destroyed.

“Within hours the lives of countless men, women and children were devastated in Tuz Khurmatu. Thousands have lost their homes, shops and everything they owned. They are now scattered in nearby camps, villages and cities, wondering whether they will ever be able to return,” Director of Research for the Middle East at Amnesty International, Lynn Maalouf, said. Priority should be given to put pressure on both sides to avoid military clashes; and the Iraqi government should provide security guaranties to IDPs to return to their places. While Kurdish authorities made a strategic miscalculation, the Iraqi government and political parties in Baghdad are now overplaying their hand as well by refusing to enter into serious negotiation with KRG. The situation of IDPs is dire; KRG’s position has been weakened, Kurdish parties are deeply divided. Yet finally there is unique opportunity for a historic settlement between Baghdad and Erbil on all outstanding issues- including disputed territories, power and revenue sharing. The EU possesses diplomatic, economic and aid leverage with both parties. It can use its influence to persuade the federal government and KRG to start serous negotiation, within the framework of the Iraqi constitution, and under the auspices of the UN. 

Fifth, a weak, unstable and non-democratic KRG is in no one’s interest, including Federal Iraq, regional states and the EU. The disillusionment of society with the ruling elite and the opposition coupled with the lack of prospects for solving the current economic and political problems provide perfect grounds for the emergence of a post-ISIS Kurdistan region ( and Iraq) that is characterized by the rise of radical ideas –both religious and non-religious-, violence, warlordism and further interference by regional powers. The EU can play a crucial role in facilitating the peaceful transfer of power within ruling parties by committing them to free, fair and timely elections. This holds true of the Iraqi government as well. More importantly EU can support peaceful and non-violent new political parties and social movements that have successfully resisted ruling elites in Baghdad and Erbil and have earned the support and recognition of local communities. Ensuring free, fair and credible election next year is an important step in the struggle of these new movements to try to reform a stalled system.    

Sixth, Iraq’s structural, internal problems are not isolated from its regional neighborhood. As a matter of fact, a weak Iraqi state invites external intervention that exacerbates internal fault lines and in turn destabilizes the entire region .Recent rapprochement between Iraq and Arab Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is a welcome and encouraging development. The confidence of the Iraqi government arising from the military defeat of ISIS and its desire to play a positive role in defusing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia is welcome news. The EU can encourage the transition of Iraq from being a theater of proxy wars to becoming a centerpiece for inclusive security and economic structures through support to activities that aim at building trust and increasing economic interdependence between Iraq and GCC through the development of common plans to reconstruct ISIS liberated areas and other regions, developing joint frameworks for regional economic cooperation. Iran, Turkey and other regional states could be involved in these initiatives as well. 

To conclude only a peaceful, stable and inclusive regional security system can guarantee the emergence of a stable, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Iraqi state. Thank you for your attention- and I look forward to your questions and comments.             

Photo credit: "European Parliament / Parlement europée" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Patrick Müller