BEIRUT – Iraq’s self-declared victory over the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) at the end of 2017 was a key reason the country was listed as the second most improved state on the 2018 Fragile State Index, which assesses a state’s vulnerability to conflict or collapse.
To understand Iraq’s progress and potential for improvement, however, it is necessary to go beyond the data and examine the root causes of chronic fragility, experts told Peacebuilding Deeply.
“There are real limits to what rankings can actually tell you,” says Frances Z. Brown, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The much more important, and interesting, question is not whether a country is 11 or 12 on a given index, but what kind of fragility it has, in all its dimensions, what are the causes and trajectories, structures and actors, and potential upcoming tripwires or interventions that could change its fate.”
Iraq is a perfect case in point.
Although the successful military campaign against ISIS has improved some aspects of the country’s security and economy, military gains have yet to be matched by successes at healing Iraq’s fractured government and weak state institutions. If left unaddressed, they may undermine the prospects for sustainable peace, experts say.
Iraq was ranked the 11th most fragile state of 178 on the FSI index, published last month by the Fund For Peace. But its scores compared to last year suggest that the country is improving.
There has been some debate over the extent to which the FSI methodology accurately reflects trends on the ground. But the World Bank has also noted progress in Iraq’s security and economy, citing the defeat of ISIS, increase in oil prices and the gradual pickup of investment for reconstruction as factors behind the improvement.
In 2018, Iraq’s total FSI score improved for the first time since ISIS seized large swaths of the country in 2014. It is also one of the country’s best scores since 2006 and the greatest improvement the country has seen on the index in a decade. (The only other time Iraq had a similarly positive score was the year before ISIS rose to power.)
The FSI noted significant progress on the Security Apparatus indicator, which assesses threats of bombings, attacks and terrorism. While Iraq is far from being stable or secure, ISIS does now have a diminished ability to carry out attacks with the same intensity and frequency.
ISIS’s defeat also decreased communal violence and religious persecutions for Yazidis, Shiites and other groups often targeted by hard-line militants. It has also decreased ISIS violations against some segments of the Sunni population previously living under its rule in places like Mosul. This, along with the recapture of militant-held territory, likely contributed to Iraq’s improved FSI scores for State Legitimacy and Group Grievances indicators.
What is perhaps more telling of Iraq’s current situation is the one indicator that did not improve: Factionalized Elites.
Over the past nine years, Iraq’s Factionalized Elites score has remained at a high 9.6, which suggests that fragmentation of state institutions along ethnic or religious lines, gridlock between ruling elites and political mobilization power of sectarian militarism continue to be a consistent area of fragility.
Fragmentation has made Iraq vulnerable to conflict and collapse for years. After former president Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, infighting within the country’s political power blocs, rampant political sectarianism and growing Iranian influence over the government have only compounded the situation.
The issues of good governance and stabilization are expected to loom large over post-ISIS Iraq, according to Brown.
“In the months and years to come, Iraq’s greatest challenge will be translating its impressive military victories into commensurate governance and development gains. Otherwise, we could see a return of some of the grievances that allowed ISIS to grow in the first place: sense of marginalization, injustice and exclusion,” she says.
Elections and Reform
“Not since 2003 has there been such an opportunity for political reform,” Mehiyar Kathem, an Iraq expert, wrote in a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace article published in the days before Iraq’s first elections since ISIS was defeated.
After the votes were counted, analysts and commentators hailed the election as a sign that Iraq is embracing political reform and shifting away from sectarian politics.
A coalition that includes communists, Sunnis and political independents, affiliated with Muqtada al-Sadr – a Shiite cleric who has fashioned himself as an anti-corruption crusader – secured a surprising victory, defeating political officials aligned with Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
“Iraqis have communicated that a politician’s political party, sect or ethnicity is not a prerequisite to administer Iraq. Iraqis voted for leaders who are qualified to rebuild the nation after ISIS,” says Ibrahim al-Marashi, an associate professor at California State University, San Marcos, and the co-author of The Modern History of Iraq.
“Now the mandate is with the Iraqi government to consolidate national cohesion,” he adds.
Ancuţa Hansen, the country director for Iraq at the National Democratic Institute, says that “the next step of government formation might provide a better indication of the new leadership’s commitment to good governance and strengthening institutions.”
The government has yet to be officially formed, but early reports suggest that the process will be tainted by divisions and fragmentation as Iran reportedly tries to mobilize a coalition of political officials to undercut Sadr’s efforts.
Hansen warns that “a protracted conflict over government positions might further antagonize the Iraqi street and set the stage for future civil unrest.”
According to Hansen, Iraq’s ability to prevent future conflicts is tied to its ability to form a legitimate, inclusive and accountable government.
To mend the broken relationship between state and citizen, gain public support for the substantial recovery efforts ahead and initiate long-needed government reforms, the newly elected government will need to give “women, minorities and other underrepresented groups a seat at the table,” she says.
“A voice to influence debate is critical to developing policies that represent the needs and concerns of all citizens … [and that] will be vital to establishing an inclusive social and political framework.”
She adds that local and central government officials need to adopt social dialogue mechanisms, including listening tours and town-hall meetings to discuss policy options with citizens.
In order to address political apathy, Hansen says the new government will need to implement development plans tailored to the specific needs of each region, and carefully balance the distribution of revenues across the country.
“A perceived lack of fairness in this process could create resentment and increase tension along ethno-sectarian lines, and even lead to renewed conflict,” she adds.
While it is still too soon to tell, progress will not happen overnight.