An Iraqi person walks down a road blocked by burning tires in Basra in August 2022. (HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, in partnership with the Center for Conflict Studies and Humanitarian Action, held an academic workshop entitled "Iraq: Twenty Years on from the Invasion: Assessing the Lasting Impact and Future." This event took place on May 14 and 15, 2023, at the Arab Center's headquarters in Doha. The workshop discussed the governance experience in Iraq over the past two decades, with a particular emphasis on the analysis of the course of the conflict in Iraq and the evaluation of the reconstruction efforts.

The workshop, attended by academics and decision-makers participated, was structured into six sessions. These sessions covered various aspects of the topic, touching on perceptions of the conflict in Iraq, the current situation, reconstruction issues, the roles of regional and international powers, and an outlook on the future of Iraq.

The American invasion of Iraq: causes and current Consequences

The workshop began with two welcoming speeches, delivered by Ghassan El-Kahlout, Director of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies, and Haider Saeed, representing the Arab Center. They emphasized the importance of using the twentieth anniversary of the American invasion in evaluating the Iraqi experience.

The symposium commenced its proceedings with the first session, focusing on the topic of "The Perception of Conflict in Iraq,". The discussion delved into the reasons that paved the way for the American occupation of Iraq, the direct and indirect consequences, and the social and political crises that erupted following the occupation. The session also addressed the shift in the American policy in Iraq from "addressing the effects of tyranny" to "the conflict resolution," revealing that the American perception of Iraq went beyond toppling tyranny, to envisioning Iraqi society as inherently conflictual. It explored the ideal political system for Iraq- the collectivist system, known as "consociational democracy," promotes identity affiliation over nationalism. The session also discussed plans to address the conflict in Iraq, their outcomes, and whether Iraq is still a conflict country or not.

The second session, entitled "The Current Situation in Iraq: 20 Years After the Invasion," examined the prevailing political conditions in Iraq, the pervasive issue of corruption, within the political society, and the encroachments on political rights and civil liberties. The session concluded that despite what some might consider a "Nascent Democracy" with institutions that need more time to solidify, the democratic project in Iraq still lacks a committed democratic elite. In addition, the development of democracy within a weak state incapable of monopolizing legal violence is challenging. Moreover, the concept of citizenship is absent in such an environment.

Reconstruction: Achievements, Challenges, and Prospects

The third and fourth sessions of the workshop focused on the topic of reconstruction in Iraq aiming to assess what has been achieved in this field and highlight the main challenges as well as possible prospects. Participants began by acknowledging the extensive foreign literature and studies that have discussed the topic of reconstruction in Iraq, given the near absence of Iraqi literature on the subject. They also pointed out the need to expand the concept of "reconstruction", which is no longer limited - in the relevant international literature - to post-conflict reconstruction, but rather includes political and societal aspects. Therefore, the reconstruction process in Iraq should adhere to the World Bank's definition of the reconstruction process which is linked to facilitating a transition to complete peace, cessation of hostilities, support for economic and social development, as well as contextual factors related to the circumstances of the country. These factors include conflict causes, pre-conflict social and economic contexts, future visions, the role of external actors in reconstruction, the impact of internal U.S. political conditions on Iraq's reform, the role of Iraqi civil society institutions in the reconstruction process, and the extent of achieving the core pillars of reconstruction (security, social and economic well-being, justice and reconciliation, governance, and participation).

The participants explained that the reconstruction efforts in Iraq can be divided into two phases; the first phase extending from 2003 - 2017, while the second phase begins from 2017 - coinciding with the liberation of territories previously held by ISIS - until the present time. This means that there is a new post-ISIS reconstruction project that is entirely different from what was proposed the day after the invasion. During both phases - according to what the participants indicated - no tangible results were achieved on the ground, despite the significant funds allocated. The reasons for this include corruption, mismanagement, misallocation of public funds, the absence of strategic planning, and differences in the reconstruction visions among involved international parties, as is the case with American envoys. These factors have hindered the establishment of a comprehensive cumulative working system, which encompasses the roles of international and local stakeholders, investors, and civil society institutions.

The participants also discussed the size of the financial allocations for reconstruction and the mechanism of their distribution. They reached a consensus that the security sector consistently received the largest share of those allocations, while limited funds were allocated to education, healthcare and infrastructure development sectors.

Participants also pointed out the absence of monitoring mechanisms for the reconstruction process, which can be partially attributed to the difficulty of tracking the flow of disbursing funds, as they are often categorized under broad and vague titles such as "democratic development" and maintaining civil peace. Additionally, the lack of a comprehensive policy-oriented database makes it challenging to identify the needs of the official decision maker according to a comprehensive development policy perspective.

At the conclusion of the session, the participants agreed that the discussion of reconstruction efforts cannot be isolated from the discussion of the political situation and that the success of reconstruction is closely tied to political reform capable of dismantling patronage system that has developed among the stakeholders. This ultimately led to more corruption and waste of public funds and turned the reconstruction into a crisis management situation rather than a response to the genuine needs of Iraq as well as Iraqis.

The role of regional and international powers in the success or failure of Iraq's recovery

The fifth session discussed the roles of regional and international powers in Iraq following the invasion, assessing the impact they had on Iraq, whether positive or negative, in four main aspects:

  1. The Role of the United States: This section discussed the role of the United States in Iraq as an occupying force since 2003, highlighting its continued direct involvement in Iraq's security, political, and even constitutional matters;
  2. The Iranian Role: This part analyzed Iran's role in Iraq, examining the reasons for its intervention, motivations, and different forms of involvement, as well as its impact on the political scene;
  3. The Turkish Role: The session delved into Turkey's interests in Iraq, particularly related to energy, trade exchange, and security, shedding light on the dynamics of Turkish-Iraqi relations;
  4. Arab States' Positions: The participants discussed the roles and stances of Arab countries toward Iraq, which were often characterized by suspicion and complexity. This has contributed to political complications in Iraq, leaving the country without strong regional allies, unlike Iran, which skillfully leveraged ideological factors in its foreign policy.

The participants presented various perspectives on the motivations and interests of the specific and complex states in dealing with Iraq. However, they agreed that the Iraqi side remained incapable of understanding the strategies of the most important actors, especially the American and Iranian actors. Furthermore, Iraq lacked a coherent strategy in its dealings with regional states due to the absence of state logic in its political interactions and the construction of relationships with other countries based on a logic that interweaves domestic and foreign factors.

Foreseeing the Future of Iraq

In the sixth and final session, the participants attempted to provide their insights and visions of the political future of Iraq. This was done through a discussion framed by three assumptions. The first assumption emphasized that the future of Iraq is determined by Iraqi political actors, in contrast to the period from 2003 to 2005, during which there was complete American control over the political scene. It also focused on the idea that Iran has no control over the Iraqi political scene, as Iraqi political actors rejected the Iranian influence in several occasions.

As for the second assumption, it was argued that the future of Iraq is shaped according to the fate of the Shia-Shia conflict over the meaning, form, and future of the state, independently of the Sunni or Kurdish components. This conflict arose due to the disintegration of solidarity between the Shia community, including ordinary individuals, with the Shia political class. This disintegration was demonstrated politically during the Basra protests (2018), which witnessed for the first time nationwide Iraqi sympathy and support. Additionally, the Shia religious leadership, for the first time, supported the people's right to protest, in contrast to previous protests that had been sectarianized within the framework of the Sunni-Shiite conflict.

The third scenario assumed that political reform could be achieved if there were a legitimate opposition within the Parliament. This scenario posits that the success by several parliamentarians associated with the protest movement of the fall of 2019, known as the "October Uprising," in obtaining seats in the Parliament, coupled with the weakened financial resources, which forces the political class to undertake some necessary reforms, as the authority does not make voluntary and permanent concessions except when faced with a significant defeat by one of the parties. In the same context, some participants argued that envisioning the future of Iraq is not solely contingent on the removal of the political class and that it is not realistic to rely solely on the youth of the protest movement to bring about change. This is due to their inability to form political organizations, the existence of political disagreements, and the recruitment of a number of them by established political forces.

Finally, the participants touched on the future of the Iraqi state, discussing that the federal system cannot succeed in Iraq under a rentier state, because federalism means strengthening the parties at the expense of the center, unlike a rentier state. The same applies to the confederal system, which, if established, will lead to a conflict over resources between the regions, and this will lead to the actual division of the state. While others saw that the fear of the division of the Iraqi state had faded compared to the first years after the invasion.

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