The success of the elite Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service in driving ISIS out of Ramadi offers a lesson for success to those who want to rebuild this demolished city. Iraq is in need of a similarly effective political leadership.
The ICT is a modern Special Forces unit that has focused successfully on high standards and professionalism. It has also been open to all Iraqis independent of their ethnicity or religion. They self-consciously filter out members who show signs of sectarian or ethnic ideologies.
They are organizationally independent of the Ministry of Defense and have a military culture similar to that of the American Special Forces who trained them. Their officers have obtained their positions competitively and not by the political connections that often help determine promotions within the Iraqi Army. Unlike IA units who deserted their positions resulting in the loss of Ramadi, Mosel, and other major centers, the ICT is tenacious and has done well even when outnumbered or outgunned.
The need for a similarly nationalist, inclusive government would facilitate rebuilding and draw citizen support across ethnic and sectarian religious divides. In fact, there is even electoral evidence that the Iraqi people are ahead of their sectarian leadership on such questions; Maliki’s State of Law Coalition did well during the 2009 provincial elections using a nationalist rather than sectarian appeal.
Similarly, the secular and diverse Iraqiya Party won by a small plurality of seats in the 2010 national election. It was only by shady manipulations by State of Law and the Iraqi Supreme Court that State of Law and it’s new post-election coalition partners were permitted to form a ruling coalition government rather than Iraqiya. It’s also notable that Iraqis have a high rate of Sunni-Shia intermarriage despite the mistaken notion that the current state of sectarian tension has always been present in Iraq.
The Bill for rebuilding
The need for nationalist leadership has never been clearer than it is in rebuilding the areas of Iraq that have been reclaimed from ISIS occupation. Despite very substantial contributions towards reconstruction from various sources, there’s not much movement in the affected areas.
Soon after the victory in Ramadi, Secretary Kerry announced that the U.S. and other members of the anti-Daesh coalition had provided the UN Development Program with over $50 million to rebuild Ramadi. This came after Iraq obtained a $350 million loan from the World Bank in July 2015 for emergency reconstruction throughout all of the regions of Iraq reclaimed from ISIS.
At that time, the focus was on areas like Tikrit and Diyala freed by Shia militia and Kurdish Peshmerga. The World Bank has also set in motion a $1 billion loan program to help ease Iraq’s $20 billion budget deficit. Moreover, a $335 million fund was also established by the Bank to help Iraq improve road networks including those to the southern port of Umm Qasr.
The bad news has been that despite all the resources being marshaled for Iraq’s reconstruction, very little has been done. Some three months after reclaiming Tikrit, only 4000 families had returned to the city. Part of the problem was sectarian since the predominantly Sunni population of Tikrit had faced retribution from the Shia militia that had retaken the city.
There also remained a good number of unexploded IEDs and other ordnance to be cleared. In fact, James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq has claimed that very little rebuilding has taken place in the reclaimed cities except for the restoration of oil infrastructure.
The possible political impediments to reconstruction can be found in both Baghdad and Anbar. The central government in Baghdad continues to be plagued by elements of the Dawa Party and others who have favored Shia domination of Iraq rather than power sharing with Sunni and Kurdish leaders. These sectarian leaders, including former Prime Minister and current Vice President Maliki, are to blame for much of the current ISIS support.
Maliki previously undermined any legitimacy that the government might have had among the Sunnis by failing to pay the Sons of Iraq (Sahwa) neighborhood watch force, and by reneging on promises to integrate them into the Iraqi security forces. More provocative still was the government’s arrest and incarceration of Sunni leaders on often-unsupported charges of terrorism. Meanwhile, crimes committed by Shia terrorists during the same period led to no comparable charges.
A better alternative?
The good news is that under U.S. pressure, and with ISIS at his doorstep, Maliki stepped down in favor of Haider al-Abadi in 2014. Despite Abadi’s long-term affiliation with the same Dawa Party as Maliki, he has been received quite differently.
Abadi is a Western trained engineer who came from a prominent family, and is more respected by Iraq’s elites than Maliki. He’s also nationalist, more inclusive of non-Shia, and a good government pragmatist. He has sought reforms to reduce corruption, eliminate duplicate offices like the co-Vice President position now held by Maliki, and make political appointments based on merit rather than the religious or ethnic affiliations that currently frame the process.
In short, he seems to favor inclusiveness and professionalism much like the ICT forces, but is still impeded by the power of the pro-Iranian elements of his party. One recent assessment had him “holding on” while trying to establish a balance.
The fractional character of the Shia elite in Baghdad is mirrored by that of the Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar. While the Abadi government has been wise enough to consult with these leaders and try to recruit a Sunni police force to patrol post-conflict Ramadi, there are still disaffected leaders among them who formerly supported ISIS and may be hedging their bets.
While it’s clear that Abadi has profited politically by the ICT success in Ramadi and wants to achieve similar successes, there will have to be far more engagement between American SOF advisors, ICT forces, anti-ISIS Anbar sheiks, and the Iraqi government before all of this will run smoothly. However, if Abadi succeeds the model will spread to other reclaimed areas and contribute to stability in Iraq.
In the meantime it’s worth remembering that if Iraq weren’t so sectarian, the focus of this article would have been a short analysis of the costs and benefits of alternative rebuilding proposals.