Iraq’s efforts to rebuild cities destroyed by the war against Islamic State (IS) group militants will receive significant international attention next month as representatives from some 70 countries and international organisations gather in Kuwait to launch post-conflict reconstruction plans.
But whether the rebuilding will promote deep changes in the way things are done in this graft-ridden and politically and ethnically divided nation rests largely on whether the reconstruction efforts sink into Iraq’s swamp of corrupt bureaucrats and incompetent politicians.
Iraq’s previous reconstruction efforts following the US-led invasion in 2003 began with billions of dollars and high hopes and ended in abysmal failure mired in graft, fraud and mismanagement.
Kuwait has said it will host an international conference on reconstruction in the parts of Iraq devastated by the war against IS. Donor countries and international organisations are expected to announce a package of financial contributions at the meeting to be held from 12 to 14 February.
Hard-hit by sharp drops in oil prices, Iraq is seeking external support to repair the economic and infrastructure damage caused by battles with IS insurgents. The government has announced that it needs $100 billion to reconstruct the conflict-affected areas over a ten-year period.
Iraqi Minister of Planning Salman Al-Jumaili has said the government has adopted a two-phase reconstruction plan. The first is set to begin in 2018 and end in 2022, and the second is set for the period between 2022 and 2028.
The Iraqi government has said in a statement that funding for the reconstruction will come largely from the United Nations, foreign organisations, international loans, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the private sector.
The government has not provided detailed accounts of the financial losses to Iraqi infrastructure inflicted by the war on IS, but it estimates the cost of reconstruction and rehabilitation of damaged cities to be $100 billion.
Some 200 urban centres in Iraq are believed to have been affected by the war.
Some aid agencies have estimated that military operations in the country since 2014 have resulted in damage to between 30 to 90 per cent of areas in the war-torn cities, depending on the severity of battles.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, who declared “final victory” in December marking the end of IS in the country’s major cities, said his government would now focus on rebuilding areas devastated by the war, largely seen as vital for political stability and national reconciliation.
On the humanitarian level, the battles for the cities have taken a heavy toll on some five million civilians who have lost their homes and been displaced or trapped in neighbourhoods that have been destroyed or severely damaged by fighting.
Ahead of the donors’ meeting, foreign governments and development agencies have pledged funding to help Iraq in rebuilding, but the aid promises fall short of Iraq’s declared needs for its reconstruction programme.
Various reports have suggested that the United Nations has budgeted $1 billion for the stabilisation of Iraqi cities regained from IS. The World Bank has reportedly approved a $400 million financial assistance package to support the recovery, reconstruction and rehabilitation of priority infrastructure and restore the delivery of public services in areas of Iraq newly liberated from IS.
The United States has announced that it will double its reconstruction and stabilisation aid to the Iraqi government in 2018 to $150 million.
The European Union has signed an agreement with Iraq to provide 60.4 million euros “to restore stability” in the country and to begin reconstruction of areas liberated from IS.
Another agreement, worth 50.4 million euros, is intended to contribute to the “restoration of basic services and public infrastructure, as well as economic life by providing financial assistance to small business.”
Several other countries have made pledges to provide millions of dollars in financial aid to support displaced persons in Iraq and promote stability in the country over the next few years.
Iraqis are eager to see the outcome of the Kuwait conference, but media reports have quoted officials as saying that Kuwait expects to gather only $18 billion, or a small fraction of the required funding.
Iraq needs reconstruction projects in several key sectors, primarily water and electricity supplies, health, transport and municipal services, education, agriculture and other urban service needs of communities in the recaptured areas.
Given Iraq’s record of corruption and government incompetence, many in Iraq and the international community believe it is of the utmost importance that clear principles be established for the provision of aid for reconstruction.
One key concern is that the government has failed to lay out comprehensive plans for the reconstruction of the liberated territories. Much more detailed work is needed to develop proper plans for each city.
Al-Abadi, meanwhile, is accused of paying lip service to the reconstruction and reconciliation with the country’s Sunnis. Critics say he is showing little haste in making the war-damaged cities habitable once more.
Reconstruction in most of the newly liberated cities such as Mosul, Fallujah, Baiji and Hawja is being either neglected or is proceeding slowly, hampering the return of hundreds of thousands of their displaced populations.
Critics say the issue is not all about the money needed to rebuild the Iraqi cities and how much the international community will promise to help, but could be due to Iraq’s politics, which remain in disarray.
Iraq is preparing for general elections in May, and politicians are eager to see aid money directed towards their constituents. While efforts are needed to apportion aid between the country’s various needs, Shia groups are trying to muster support for their candidates by promising to allocate some international funding to their areas.
The Shia-dominated Iraqi parliament last week endorsed a resolution sponsored by Shia members to allocate money for the reconstruction of the southern port city of Basra which they say was badly “affected by Saddam’s wars.”
Another problem is that the government will need to assure donors of its commitment to transparency and that political divisions and bureaucracy will not hamper efforts to rebuild on a sufficient scale and speed.
A longer-term policy challenge is the provision of finance through provincial and local governments, which remains inadequately addressed. Fears are high about aid money being used to buy favours to influence local politics, hampering reconstruction efforts.
Whether the reconstruction efforts promote deep changes in the way things are done in Iraq rests largely on the central government’s powers of leadership, efficiency and transparency.
Scepticism abounds that the government will make sure that the aid money ends up where it is supposed to. Corruption, misuse, fraud, theft and kickbacks are rampant, and the government will need to work closely with the aid agencies in order to ensure that money donated is not stolen.
Any failure to fix these problems will be detrimental to the reconstruction efforts. The government needs to show the country’s Sunni Arabs that they have a stake in Iraq’s future, when any failure to rebuild their cities could be very consequential, including the return of IS militants.
*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.