If the Iraqi government and the United Nations are to be believed, “a national dialogue” among political forces to be held before the October parliamentary elections might help rebuild a stable and peaceful Iraq.
Last month incumbent Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi called for a conference he said would give the embattled people hope amid the troubled political system established after the US invasion in 2003 and the overthrow of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
“We call on all political forces and parties to seek the interests of the country, avoid rigid discourse and stop political smearing in order to pave the way for an early and successful election,” he said.
Al-Kadhimi expressed his hope that the conference would bring together representatives of existing political parties, anti-government protesters and members of the opposition. Al-Kadhimi did not disclose a specific agenda for the conference but said he expected it to end the standoff with the Kurdistan Region and “maintain Iraq’s territorial unity.”
The grandiose proposal was made while Iraq remains entangled in numerous overlapping crises, ranging from political and sectarian turmoil and popular protests to deterioration in security and the coronavirus pandemic.
Al-Kadhimi came to office following demonstrations which swept many parts of the country in early October 2019, forcing his predecessor, Adel Abdel-Mahdi, to resign. He pledged to reform Iraq’s dysfunctional government and restructure the security forces, reining in rogue Iran-backed militias.
Al-Kadhimi also promised to hold an early election with free and fair voting, a key demand of the anti-establishment protesters who accuse the ruling political factions of rigging Iraq’s last, 2018 election to secure most parliamentary seats for themselves.
The Baghdad-based Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, who believes the country is as at a crossroads and needs to resolve its problems, also proposed a national dialogue to “bring Iraqis together to draw a roadmap towards a more inclusive, stable and prosperous Iraq.”
“Full access to all information, facts and figures will prove key. Window dressing will only feed anger and resentment,” she told the UN Security Council in December 2019.
Spokesmen for Al-Kadhimi who started a media campaign to test his proposal said a team at his office is ironing out a plan to convene the gathering, draft an agenda and put together a list of participants.
One of the main ideas being propagated by Al-Kadhimi’s aides is “a new social and political contract”, a compact to be adopted by the participants and end the country’s political impasse.
Many of Iraq’s main factions have voiced initial support for Al-Kadhimi’s proposal, and some suggested the talks should be conducted under the auspices of the United Nations. Muqtada Al-Sadr, the populist Shia cleric whose political bloc holds most of the Shia seats in parliament, said the dialogue should exclude former members of Saddam’s Baath Party.
For their part, pro-Iran paramilitary groups who have political wings in the Iraqi parliament where they often push back against Al-Kadhimi’s government have been silent about his national dialogue’s plans.
Critics nonetheless feel there is something unrealistic about Al-Kadhimi’s bid to bring together competing actors with such disparate interests and so many complex sources of discontent to the negotiating table.
Al-Kadhimi’s soapbox statements lack details and clear objectives that would bring about meaningful change. They expressed their doubts that the entrenched ruling factions will be ready to make concessions to promote a national accord.
Since Saddam’s downfall several attempts have been made at a fuller reconciliation among the rival political groups which represent Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic communities, but none managed to bring about any lasting peace or stability.
Over many years, some international NGOs that have worked as network facilitators tried to achieve reconciliation in Iraq by suggesting broadening the scope of dialogue at the grassroots and national levels. Those groups have also provided expertise and training in conflict management, solving local problems, facilitating community discussions and religious peace making.
Yet all national reconciliation efforts, including two meetings sponsored by the Cairo-based Arab League, promptly turned messy, exposing not only deep political divides but competing visions for Iraq and what it should look like.
Right from the start, national reconciliation in Iraq meant different things to different groups. For Shias it meant ending the killings and other modes of violence practised by disgruntled Sunni groups, while for Sunnis it meant a fair deal in sharing power and wealth.
The Kurds and other ethnic minorities sought to balance a desire for greater autonomy with the benefits of a staying in a unified Iraq. Most Iraqis sought a democratic government in which political power is not absolute.
The unsuccessful conclusion of all previous intra-Iraq dialogues underscored the difficulty of the task in the light of mutual mistrust and the high benchmarks raised by rival parties to strike a deal on national reconciliation.
The failure of the successive efforts to negotiate a lasting political agreement among Iraqis about the future of their country has contributed to the ongoing state of chaos and the ongoing deadlock.
In this atmosphere of confusion and anxiety, the picture of Iraq’s multiple conflicts is more complex and there is reason to believe that the sources of communal mistrust are much deeper now than a decade ago.
In order for a national dialogue to succeed, participants must address the core issues behind communal discontent and new challenges that have been on the rise over the years. Today any intra-Iraq dialogue must address key issues such as sectarianism, corruption, the role of non-state actors, relations between the central government and the Kurdistan Region and Iran’s influence.
Sectarianism within Iraq’s political system since the US invasion in 2003 has become the dominant societal force, going beyond power and wealth to identity politics and becoming a source of division and violence.
Endemic public corruption has plagued Iraq and successive governments have failed to put an end to the phenomenon, which has adversely affected state functioning, economy and the country’s security issues. Billions of dollars in public money have been syphoned by political leaders at the expense of living conditions and public services.
Pro-Iran Shia militias that have become a state within the state remain the toughest challenge for Iraq’s stability and future. So far Al-Kadhimi has failed to keep his promise to bring all militias under state control. No dialogue will be effective until the militias are disarmed and neutralised.
Despite a crackdown, including assassinations and kidnappings, Iraqi protesters objecting to government dysfunction, the militias’ role and Iran’s increasing influence are still active on and off, reorganising themselves into political parties and seeking a role in the country’s future.
Through the dialogue the Iraqi political system needs to send a clear signal of hope to those protesters, demonstrating that there is a place for them in national life. The government needs to act now to convince young anti-establishment activists that they can have a fair deal in Iraq through the political process.
While participants in the dialogue should tackle all those problems, they should also review the Iraqi Constitution which has showed tremendous weaknesses through protecting the sectarian system and for not being true to its democratic premises.
Many of the provisions in the document, which was drafted primarily by Shia and Kurdish leaders, agreed upon and ratified in 2005, have either been sidestepped or violated.
Past intra-Iraq dialogues were mostly monologues and for the new one to succeed participants must engage in a new spirit of openness and attempt to overcome the struggles and divisions of the last 18 years.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly