US Foreign Policy
Commentary

Iraq: Why Reconciliation Is So Hard

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By Ellen Laipson – As American politicians debate deadlines and benchmarks for Iraqi performance, it is clear that Iraqi society and its new political class are not yet in a conciliatory mood.  The various historic grievances now compete with new rivalries over land and power, creating new tensions that undermine the spirit of reconciliation.   In addition, the execution of Saddam Hussein has removed any prospect for a Baathi apology, which could help trigger the process of healing and forgiveness.  The international community will have to accept that true reconciliation is a long way off.

Iraqis are caught in multiple historic narratives about violence and victimhood.  Some focus on the lawlessness that has plagued the country since the US invasion in 2003 that failed to secure Iraq’s borders and gravely weakened the domestic security services’ capacity to maintain law and order.  Others say the sectarian violence was triggered by the Samarra bombing in February 2006 that ended the remarkable restraint by the Shia community, in the face of relentless attacks by al-Qaida and former regime insurgents.  Yet others say Iraqis need to come to terms with the decades-long culture of violence that even predates Saddam, but has been embedded in Iraq’s responses to political change and conflict throughout the period of Baathi rule.  For reconciliation to take place, some shared historic narrative seems to be a critical factor, and yet it is missing. 

A second missing ingredient are the larger-than-life figures who can inspire and lead in times of transition.  Many have bemoaned the absence of a transcendent figure like Nelson Mandela.  But Iraqis point out that there is also no deKlerk, an establishment figure who can say with authority that the policies of the past were wrong, and who can help steer the former ruling group and its followers to a position of realism and help them avoid expressing their loss of status through violence.  Iraqi Kurds report their frustration at being brought to South Africa to learn about reconciliation, only to realize that Iraq does not have the necessary inputs to make the process work.   

The new politics of Iraq are an additional factor that complicates reconciliation.  The political parties that won seats in parliament in December 2005 are still consolidating their power bases, and are more focused on building loyalty to the party and its values than to cross-party alliances based on political compromise and shared interest.  Oil, Kirkuk, federalism all add friction to an already tense environment.  To be sure, this is not a static situation, and we are witnessing incremental change in how the parties position themselves vis a vis the US role and the many critical challenges that face the country.  The Sadrists, for example, have demonstrated an ability to shift the party’s position and to make tradeoffs between short- term and long-term interests, including on the role of foreign forces in improving security conditions in Baghdad.   But tensions are also apparent across cultural boundaries such as secular vs religious, further complicating the task of reconciliation.

Many Iraqis are committed to learning to get along; there are powerful stories about local, or micro efforts at reconciliation, and at new bridge-building between north and south, etc.  Non government organizations have been more proactive than government officials, who are constrained by security protocols limiting their movements, and the greater risk of being targetted by insurgents and terrorists that they carry.  On the ground in Iraq, one is reminded that most citizens despair of the violence and are willing to find common ground on as many issues as possible.  It is slowly dawning that Iraq is a multicultural country, less homogeneous than other predominantly Arab states.  It is also a transition country, bridging the ethnic, sectarian and cultural worlds of Arabia, Kurdistan and Persia.  Democracy in Iraq, if it ever achieves critical mass, will look different than democracy in Egypt or Lebanon.    

Among the many flawed premises of US policy towards Iraq since 2002 is the notion that reconciliation is an Iraqi task that must be attended to immediately, and that reconciliation and government effectiveness are somehow two sides of the same coin.  We do not fully understand the grievances that underly Iraqi pain today, and we cannot make the Baathis experience guilt and remorse for their years of cruelty.  Kurds’ grievances go back further, as do those of the Shia downtrodden.  But some Kurds and Shia were also beneficiaries of Baathi rule, and participated in it, and many Sunnis were its victims.  Reconciliation cannot occur in a purely sectarian framework, and it cannot occur without leadership.  The US and its dwindling coalition are eager to bring their soldiers home, and are impatiently prodding the Iraqis on performance metrics.  But reconciliation, so critical to achieving enduring peace in Iraq, is a long personal and psychological process.  A better approach would be to provide support and information for those actively engaged in reconciliation efforts, but to focus our expectations of the politicians in Baghdad on governance issues.  They may be able to achieve greater legitimacy as political leaders even before reconciliation occurs. True reconciliation, as in so many other aspects of Iraq today, is not our call, and it will happen on their clock, not ours.      


Ellen Laipson is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Stimson Center and directs the Southwest Asia project, which focuses on a range of security issues in the Gulf region. Laipson visited Iraq in May 2007.

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