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October 08, 2008

The Long Road to Reconciliation in Iraq
Posted by Max Bergmann

The discussion of U.S. involvement in Iraq has almost been solely focused on troop levels and withdrawal dates. Reporters tend to scoff at Sen Obama's line (I'm paraphrasing) "that we must be as careful getting out of Iraq, as we were careless going in" as just an empty talking point. But if any of them want to know what that phrase actually means they should take a look at a Hearing held by Congressman Delahunt today, which was one of the more interesting and productive hearings you will come across. (As someone who studied ethnic conflict I find this sort of comparative analysis fascinating and have written about it frequently)

The hearing focused on how to jump start political reconciliation in Iraq in light of future U.S. troop withdrawals. The hearing brought together people experienced in conflict resolution from South Africa and Northern Ireland to talk about both the lessons learned from their respective experiences and to discuss their involvement in the "Helsinki Agreement." Last summer Iraqi leaders from all political parties convened in Helsinki, along with the panelists from Northern Ireland and South Africa, as well as Padraig O'Malley a professor at BU and an expert on ethnic conflict resolution. The purpose of the meeting was to create a framework through which reconciliation could proceed. The New York Times wrote in July:

After years of vicious fighting among Iraq’s fractious groups and some incomplete attempts at reconciliation, a ceremony here on Saturday marked a tiny step forward, at least symbolically.The event was the result of several meetings in Helsinki, Finland, attended by a range of Iraqi politicians, as well as veterans from two other seemingly intractable conflicts, in Northern Ireland and South Africa, who have gone on to become political leaders. The meetings... produced a document, unveiled Saturday, that outlined several principles for Iraq that the parties agreed upon, a first step in a process that experts in reconciliation say could take decades...The Helsinki agreement, which was hammered out over meetings in September and April, was signed by 33 politicians from Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, Turkmen, Communist and other parties. The document consists of 17 principles, as well as strategies to ensure compliance with those goals. The principles included a commitment to eventually limit arms possession to the government, respect for minority rights and opposition to international and regional influence in Iraq’s internal affairs.

One of the rationales between having veterans of Northern Ireland and South Africa's peace processes meet with Iraqi leaders is to merely demonstrate that peace is possible. The delegation included the Republican Martin McGuinness, former IRA commander - now a minister in the new Northern Irish assembly - and the Unionist Jeffrey Donaldson - who served in the British Army in Northern Ireland - and is now a member of the assembly and the British Parliament. These two were on opposite sides of a bitter protracted sectarian war and now serve together in the same democratically elected assembly. The panel from Northern Ireland interestingly noted that one of the benefits they had was that because South Africa had already peace, they had a model to work off of and to look to for inspiration. The successful peace processes in Northern Ireland and South Africa should provide a model for Iraqis.

Three quick take aways from the hearing:

1. Political reconciliation is not something that will happen over night. There is an assumption (from both sides of the aisle) that all that needs to happen for long lasting peace is for Iraqis to be locked into a room (or an airport hanger ala Dayton) and work out their various issues and presto:  peace. To some extent locking everyone in the room and reaching broad agreement is a good start. But the details of such a catch-all agreement have to be filled in and the agreement itself has to be implemented. The problem is that when you unlock the door and let those political leaders return home, they have to be able to sell the agreement that was just signed. If the appetite for reconciliation among their supporters is not there, then the agreement - and therefore efforts to reconcile - will likely collapse. After all it is pretty hard to kiss and make up with the people who may have killed someone in your family. This is why these types of conflict are fairly intractable. In Bosnia the Dayton agreement stuck and was ultimately successful not because Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks loved it, but because we then proceeded to occupy the country until it became accepted. We can't do that now.

2. The one thing Iraqis are united on is opposition to U.S. occupation. We can't play the same role we did in Bosnia - not just because our military is completely stretched - but because we are a party to the conflict. Iraqis are united in wanting us out. Maliki is driving such a hard bargain with us, because it is politically popular to oppose the U.S. presence. This matters because it potentially makes the U.S. not only a focus for potential violence from a nationalist backlash, but because reconciliation for Iraqis must be seen as a means by which to regain their sovereignty. In Bosnia, the challenge was establishing a national identity where one had never existed.

3. In Iraq, political reconciliation will  have to be largely self-reinforcing, as it is in Northern Ireland. Peace in Iraq will require gradually building trust and confidence across sectarian lines at all level. There is no military solution to building trust. Less violence helps, but even if people feel more secure or safe in their neighborhoods that does not mean that they will have any more trust in the intentions of their Sunni or Shia neighbors or politicians. Addressing this takes a long long long time and lots and lots of talks between political leaders and the process set up with Helsinki is an important first step. This process has to ramp up as troops begin to withdrawal. Additionally, part of a withdrawal strategy has to attempt to get the countries in the region to play a constructive role in supporting political reconciliation. The panelists noted that in Northern Ireland an essential step was the improvement in relations between The British and Irish governments. Similarly, the Annapolis process is an effort to get the entire region to work toward resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  No long term stability can occur in Iraq without broad based support of its neighbors. This means for long term peace the most powerful country in Iraq - Iran - must play a constructive role.

A timetable for withdrawal is not just about moving troops out. It is also a negotiating timetable for Iraqis, as well as for Iraq's neighbors. While our military efforts decline, our diplomatic efforts will have to ramp up.

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