Opportunities and Challenges for Iraq in 2018
Wednesday, January 03, 2018
Iraq has witnessed major political and security transitions in 2017, making it the most eventful and consequential year compared to the previous ones. Based on these developments and available data, the most important issues facing Iraq during 2018 are expected to be: reconstruction, return of the displaced persons, fighting corruption, and local and national elections, not to mention the prospects of Baghdad’s foreign relations.
Transitions in 2018
At home, security forces have established full control over all areas that were previously seized by ISIS in Salah al-Din, Nineveh and Anbar governorates. Moreover, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on December 9, victory over ISIS and its end in Iraq, marking a military victory after an internal war that began in post-10 June 2014 and lasted three years, and was costly to the Iraqi people and state, as well as on the economic, social and security fronts.
Developments on the Iraqi scene did not stop there. During 2017 also, Iraq overcame the referendum dilemma on the secession of Kurdistan region last September, a major and severe crisis due to its grave internal, regional and international ramifications. Yet, the Iraqi government was able to respond positively in the best interests of the Iraqi state, enabling the central government and security forces to regain control over the “disputed areas”, which was under the control of Peshmerga forces during the war on ISIS. This development was highly consequential, on the relationship between the central government and Kurdistan regional government, and the relations between political forces and parties in Kurdistan.
During 2017 as well, the Iraqi political scene has seen the rise of new political parties and forces. This occurred as a result of rifts in traditional political alliances upon which the political process in Iraq was founded, and splits in a number of political parties and forces. The most prominent of these splits include, but are not limited to, Ammar al-Hakim’s declaration to establish “Wisdom Stream” after his defection of the Supreme Islamic Council, the declaration of Salim al-Jabouri, the speaker of Parliament, and the formation of the “Civil Rally for Reform”. Many other political parties were founded in the same year.
Abroad, there have been positive developments in Iraq’s relations with Arab countries, notably a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, as the two sides agreed to exchange official visits, open border crossings, after 20-years closure, and increase economic cooperation.
In addition, the Security Council announced on 8 December that Iraq would be relieved of all measures imposed by resolutions 1958 (2010) and 2335 (2016) pursuant to Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations for the oil-for-food program, after it had been fully implemented.
Reconstruction of liberated cities and areas, establishment of security and stability, in preparation for the return of the displaced persons, after ISIS’ control and its comprehensive destruction strategy is one of the most crucial challenges that will face the Iraqi government in 2018. It is highly important as it comes after announcing the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, plus the high cost of the reconstruction operation. The reconstruction plan of liberated areas will cost about $ 100 billion, according to estimates of the Iraqi Ministry of Planning.
Despite the government announcement of reconstruction strategy, it is endeavouring to provide the needed funds through international grants and loans (expected to receive $20 billion through the forthcoming donors’ conference in Kuwait in early 2018). This effort will likely face several obstacles, the most important of which are the possibility that oil prices will continue to fall over the next period, meaning that the financial crisis in Iraq will linger, and thus cannot allocate the necessary funds in the 2018 budget.
If the government could not address corruption, it would pose another obstacle to the reconstruction plan, as it would waste the allocated funds, hinder various investment projects in the liberated areas, and make donors reluctant to assist Iraq in this operation. In addition, the displaced persons from the liberated areas cannot return, although some cities have been liberated for more than a year and others more than two years ago.
Iraq is among the world’s most corrupt countries, according to Transparency International’s reports, as confirmed in its report in January 2017. Corruption in its various forms- political, financial and administrative- squandered hundreds of billions of dollars, especially under previous governments, as corruption became pervasive at various institutions and sectors of the state to the point that the Commission of Integrity in Iraq issued last August 216 travel bans on corruption cases against officials and politicians who were accused in 2017. This issue presents a major challenge for Iraq, which is experiencing a rather serious security, financial and political crisis.
Corruption poses a future challenge for Iraq, no less serious than the war on terror, for the damage it causes to the state and society, on the one hand, and the fact that it has been a cause of terrorism in Iraq-as many have described-on the other hand.
Recently, the Iraqi government has clearly vowed to address this issue. The Iraqi prime Minister considered it the next dossier to be addressed by the government after the war on ISIS, declaring that “the next phase in Iraq will witness a war on corruption and corrupt people”. “We will go into battle with corruption. We will win it”, he added.
All indications are that the anti-corruption campaign will be one of the most important dossiers to be addressed by al-Abadi government in 2018, and that he is preparing to announce the first list of corruption cases involving senior officials of government institutions at the beginning of the new year, including those accused of smuggling public funds outside Iraq, money laundering and other corruption cases.
Among the factors that could contribute to the success of al-Abadi’s drive to root out corruption is the existence of new political alliances and popular support base. These alliances include the speaker of the Iraqi parliament Salim al-Jabouri, vice president of Iraq Osama al-Nujaifi, and the leader of the Wisdom Stream Ammar al-Hakim. In addition, popular support for al-Abadi's government after the victory in the war on ISIS has increased, especially with the implementation of government reforms that are backed by the Popular Movement. Religious authorities have also expressed their support for the Iraqi government’s anti-corruption campaign.
However, there are challenges that can hinder or derail this campaign, the most important of which is that many officials accused of corruption have political and financial clout. Some of these officials have links with armed militias, which means that it is not easy to hold them accountable, and some of them are backed by influential political forces and parties in the Iraqi government and parliament, as well as strong regional support.
This constitutes a pressure on the Iraqi government in its future attempt to deliver on its promises in fighting corruption. In addition, some political forces fear that al-Abadi’s campaign could be an electoral gambit that may be used to pressure opponents and competitors in the upcoming elections. These factors make anti-corruption one of the most significant dossiers for Iraq in 2018, given that there are chances of success as well as risks of failure.
National and local elections
Another crucial issue for Iraq in 2018 is elections, local and national (local council elections and the House of Representatives), having been scheduled for May 2018 by the Iraqi cabinet, and both elections will be held at the same time.
The importance of these elections-if they are conducted- arises from the fact that they come in the aftermath of political and security shifts, an economic crisis, and a change in the Iraqi society’s attitude towards religious and nationalist parties.
Most Iraqi data indicate that the elections will be preceded by changes in the traditional relations of political forces and parties participating in the political process. There is a convergence between Sadris Movement and the National Coalition led by Iyad Allawi and a convergence between the Sadrist and Haider al-Abadi wing of the Dawa Party, signaling a political alliance that could lead to a real change in the map of traditional alliances.
It is also expected that sectarian-oriented alliances will not remain in their previous form, some may vanish, others would not be as strong and influential as before, given the move towards transnationalism and cross-sectarian alliances. What reinforces the strength of such alliances is the persistence of divisions and differences between the political, religious and sectarian forces.
It is important to note that the elections are likely to to take place on time thanks to popular support and the backing of many political forces that expect to make big gains, as well as the U.S. support for holding elections as scheduled. In this regard, the impact of the American factor on developments in Iraq is considerable, especially after U.S. moves to play an active role, politically and militarily, in Iraq.
There are numerous challenges that may face the elections, as some political forces and parties might try to postpone them with the aim of shuffling the cards due to the decline of their popularity. Others might use the displaced persons’ issue as to defer the elections until their full return, demanding stabilization and reconstruction of the liberated governorates so as to be suitable for both the candidates and the voters in the upcoming elections.
Another challenge facing the upcoming elections is the popular backlash from previous elections, namely, the futility of participation amid forgery and inability of the candidates who win seats in the legislative and executive powers to bring about positive changes in the lives of citizens. This could mean a growing reluctance to participate in the process, giving some political forces the opportunity to exploit the outcome of the elections in their favor.
Iraqi foreign relations
In light of Iraqi realities and the Iraqi government's efforts to restore its Arab, regional, and international relations, Baghdad in 2018 is expected to see an improvement in its relations with the Arab Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan. The chances of this happening would be bigger if the Syrian crisis is resolved, and Iraq steers away from the policy of regional axes, amid the U.S. push towards repairing Baghdad’s relations with Arab and Gulf states, given the need to involve these countries to invest in Iraq and contribute to the reconstruction efforts.
Nevertheless, this does not mean ignoring the Iranian influence on Iraqi external relations, considering that Tehran seeks to ensure that Iraq’s foreign policy is consistent with its policy, or at least, does not go against it.