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After ISIS: Politics, Deal-Making, and the Struggle for Iraq’s Future

As the Islamic State (ISIS) is rolled back and defeated in Iraq and Syria, the fight for Iraq’s political future will begin. On both a local and national level, a new political deal between the country’s parties and communities will be necessary to keep the country together. Liberated territories will need to be secured by forces acceptable to locals, populations will need to return, and towns must be rebuilt. In addition, intra-Kurdish politics and Baghdad-Erbil relations will need a new framework—whether the Kurds decide to stay or go. Underlying these dynamics is the poor state of the post-oil price decline economy of the Kurdish region.

Date & Time

Jul. 21, 2016
9:30am – 11:00am ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Four experts offered their analysis on the political, social, and economic future of Iraq as ISIS continues to lose leverage in the region.

On July 21, 2016, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and American University of Iraq, Sulaimani hosted the event “After ISIS: Politics, Deal Making and the Struggle for Iraq’s Future,” with Mina Al-Oraibi, Senior Fellow at the Institute of State Effectiveness; Akeel Abbas, Professor at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani; Christine van den Toorn, Director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani; and Bilal Wahab, Professor of International Studies ​ and Director of the Center for Development and Natural Resources at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Al-Oraibi began by focusing on the strategic importance of Mosul (Iraq’s second largest city) for Iraq, the United States, Turkey, and Iran. She said that with Mosul’s rich urban history, educational centers, and ethnic diversity, the international effort to liberate Mosul will be vital in determining Iraq’s future. The recent $2 billion pledge, made by a coalition of countries during a conference in Washington, to assist the government and people of Iraq with recovery will only be effective in rebuilding the country, Al-Oraibi indicated, if three issues are addressed. First, she noted the labor market must be revived to create opportunities for individuals who have been out of the work force for 10-12 years. Second, she highlighted that effective governance through security mechanisms will make citizens feel safe and assure them that their country can be led by individuals without the use of force. Third, Al-Oraibi stressed one of the biggest challenges for rebuilding Iraq is building trust among ethnic communities and persuading them to reconcile their differences to facilitate long-term peace.

Abbas expounded on Al-Oraibi’s point regarding ethnic identity and community reconciliation. He explained why Iraq is currently struggling to make the transition from a model of power-sharing between different ethno-sectarian communities, as exemplified in Law 21 of the Iraqi Constitution—which allows provinces to run their own security and individual affairs—to a majoritarian system. He argued that members from these ethnic communities are reestablishing the “narrative of victimhood” and are still plagued by memories of their respective experiences of persecution. Abbas discussed the dichotomy of Iraqi identity versus religious identity and how these ideas, while conflicting at times, will need to be reconciled in the future to ensure Iraq’s legitimacy as a nation-state by its own citizens. 

Wahab analyzed the Kurdish component of Iraq’s economic future and its impact on alliances between Iran and Turkey. While most of the current economy is fueled by the war-time conflict, which includes heavy government intervention, he urged diversifying economic policies, reducing dependence on oil, and opening up the market for economic reform to wean citizens off the notion that conflict is necessary to fuel the economy. Because of the power vacuum created in Iraq, Wahab noted that Turkey and Iran will push to carve out their influence in the Kurdistan region post-ISIS, creating an economic divide between urban and rural areas.

Van den Toorn reiterated several of the co-panelists points by discussing on-the-ground work in areas liberated from ISIS. She advocated for a bottom-up, inside-out manner of local deal making so different parties could participate as major stakeholders in the peace-building process. She cites Tikrit, a city held up by the Iraqi government and its international backers, as a success story in the fight against ISIS due to government intervention. Given the new financial pledge, Van den Toorn raised the following questions: Who in the government will manage the reconstruction fund? And how will corruption be avoided?

In the question and answer portion of the event, the panel responded to a question regarding the status of disputed territories. Al-Oraibi noted the difficulty Iraqi officials will have in resolving territory disputes that are not historically based in the constitution. Thus, he said, the prospect of Arab-Kurdish conflict over oil-rich Kirkuk and other disputed territories will threaten the country’s stability post-ISIS.

By Sara Abdel-Rahim, Middle East Program

Hosted By

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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