With new leadership in place, will we see an inclusive, tolerant Iraq?

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With new leadership in place, will we see an inclusive, tolerant Iraq?

The government should pay special attention to civil liberties, women's rights, internal security and foreign policy

By Arnab Neil Sengupta

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Published: Sun 7 Oct 2018, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 8 Oct 2018, 2:49 PM

By accident or design, modernisers within Iraq's factious political establishment have gained ascendancy over religious conservatives and career politicians, if the elevation of Adel Abdul Mahdi and Barham Salih to the country's two top posts is any indication.
A natural question that begs to be asked is whether their combined clout and competence will prove strong enough to overcome the enervating effects of Iraq's oil curse, political patronage and centralised rule.
On the upside, Adel Mahdi, the prime minister-designate, and Barham Salih, the newly elected president, are both held in high esteem by analysts, diplomats and former government officials. This palpable goodwill will no doubt allow them much greater leeway in taking risks compared with their predecessors.
Presumably high on their list of priorities will be Iraq's youth unemployment, power shortage, chronic corruption and decrepit public services. But no plan to tackle these challenges can be implemented without recourse to bold administrative reforms and technical and financial assistance from advanced countries.
Mahdi and Salih will need to tap into all their support networks if they are to begin dismantling the patronage system widely blamed for the squandering of Iraq's oil windfall on a bloated bureaucracy, wrong policies, substandard military equipment and illicit dealings with Iran.
Unless the state can free up adequate revenue to boost spending on infrastructure, health, education and outsourcing of public services to competent private companies, it will not be able to fulfil the promises made to angry residents of Basra and other provinces, still less win hearts and minds in Kurdistan, which voted overwhelmingly in favour of a split from Baghdad last year.
Reconstruction of large parts of the country devastated by the three-year-long war against Daesh, with an estimated price tag of $88 billion, is a whole other issue, which the Baghdad government has not even tried to address in a meaningful way so far.
With signs of Daesh regrouping in the desert and its sectarian nemesis, the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, proving to be a polarising presence, it is hard to see how Iraq can attract investment and credit facilities for reconstruction. What doesn't help is Iraq's perception among investors as the 10th most corrupt country, going by Transparency International's annual ranking.
Unless the incoming government can put in place a credible anti-corruption strategy coupled with a vision for an inclusive, pluralist and tolerant society, the pledges of $30 billion made at a conference on Iraq's rebuilding in Kuwait earlier this year might remain just that.
Iraqis have enough reason as it is to be wary about the prospects for real change given the lengthy post-electoral negotiations over the naming of the prime minister-designate and the new president. Pessimism among those who have lived through the many upheavals that have rocked Iraq since the Gulf War of 1990-91 may well be even deeper.
Against this backdrop of lingering disquiet, the international community cannot afford to merely wait and watch. From day one, representatives of the US, the UN, the EU and Arab Gulf countries will need to start making phone calls and undertaking visits so that Iraq's squabbling political factions get the message that their country's stability is not just their business.
Even as parliamentary democracy took root in Iraq in the violent aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion, those politicians did little to halt the country's slide into an ungovernable mess. Thus, Iraq's rentier-state miseries came to be compounded by bribery and corruption, its territorial sovereignty began to be violated by neighbours, and its Arab and Kurdish identities got subsumed by sectarian sentiments.
It is an undeniable fact that a big swathe of Iraq's Shia-dominated polity continues to be beholden to Iran as recipients of Tehran's largesse. Clearly, the sooner these politicians can be prodded or coerced to disband their paramilitary groups and shed their extra-territorial loyalties, the better for the country and the wider region.
At the same time, Iraqi politicians from across the spectrum need to be told in blunt terms to respect the will of the people on vital matters concerning the constitution, civil liberties, women's rights, internal security and foreign policy.
If dialogue and persuasion fail to achieve the desired results, friends of Iraq ought to adopt a carrot-and-stick approach to compel said lawmakers to become constructive critics of the government in parliament instead of dabbling in everything from populism to proxy wars.
Iraq is off to a new beginning with two seasoned politicians at the helm. But the odds are stacked so overwhelmingly against them, unless Iraq's friends keep their side of an implicit bargain, it will not be able to bury the past and move on.
Further deterioration in Iraq's security and economic situations, if not checked, would bode ill not only for the country's future but for regional peace prospects as well.
The international community will have to match its words with actions if vested interests try to block Iraq's emerging leadership from doing whatever it takes to dispel the gloom and steady the ship of state.
Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on Middle East

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