Three Challenges for Iraq in 2009

By Staffan de Mistura
Special to The Washington Post

BAGHDAD ~ A few weeks ago, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq was reminded how bad things can still be in Baghdad when a 240mm rocket slammed into our compound, ricocheted off a tree and exploded, killing two employees and wounding several others. Dozens of Iraqis continue to die each week at the hands of merciless extremists. Conditions remain far from “normal.” While life here is getting better, the security situation impedes the Iraqi people’s efforts to escape the morass they have been in for many years, and it limits what we can all do to help.

In the coming months, three major challenges need to be confronted. Without work, recent progress could be jeopardized. But it is encouraging – and should be recognized – that there is positive news on all three fronts.

The first challenge relates to the elections that took place Saturday in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. More than 14,000 candidates competed to sit on the local councils, many of them determined to help improve the poor delivery of public services such as electricity, water, sanitation, education and health care. The performance of most provincial councils elected four years ago has been so disappointing that a pronounced “throw the bums out” mentality exists in many places.

The United Nations has worked closely with the Iraqi Electoral Commission and others to ensure that these elections will be free and fair, training more than 60,000 electoral observers. Saturday’s vote should increase Iraqis’ confidence in their local institutions and in accountable democracy more generally. This time, the Sunni parties are not boycotting the elections, as most did four years ago, so their representation in some key provinces is likely to rise significantly. Local Sunni concerns will be democratically supported by their representatives, helping to promote national reconciliation.

The second challenge relates to the growing tensions between Arabs and Kurds. These tensions, based on historical, Baathist and more recent injustices in the swath of “disputed territories” to the south of Iraqi Kurdistan, especially the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, have infected almost every aspect of the political scene. They have impeded progress on the vital oil law, revenue-sharing and constitutional review; they brought the armed forces of the central government and the Kurdish region to the brink of conflict a few months ago; and they provoke the mutual distrust and unhelpful rhetoric that appears to paralyze governance at many levels.

Iraq’s friends in the international community must encourage the national (and largely Arab) Iraqi and regional (Kurdish) leaderships to ratchet down tensions and explore new solutions for some of the most pressing issues: the oil law, Kirkuk, local security forces and the constitution. On a positive note, there is a growing desire among the various Kirkuki ethnic groups to reach a compromise that would be acceptable to the other communities living in Kirkuk, not just to their own. When I visited Kirkuk last month, this was the message I picked up from almost everyone I met.

The third challenge is the need for a greater willingness to seek national reconciliation at all levels and among all major groups: Sunni-Shiite, Shiite-Shiite, Sunni-Sunni, Arab-Kurd and Kurd-Kurd. As the United Nations works to promote the spirit of dialogue and reconciliation here, our staff has noted that “compromise” in Iraqi Arabic is often mistakenly translated as “tanazul,” which has the connotation of “giving up on your principles.” Given this mind-set, it’s hardly surprising that identifying outcomes acceptable to all can be difficult.

Fortunately, during the past few months, there have been several issues, including the elections law and matters in the disputed areas, where tense political standoffs were ended when an impartial outsider presented a proposal that all sides could agree on as a face-saving win. A growing Iraqi willingness to forego the perfect solution for any one party is a positive sign. We must build on this recognition that compromise is the only way to proceed in a nascent democratic system, especially one with such profound wounds.

While the security situation is improving, political violence in Iraq will not simply end in the coming months. But 2009 is the second year running in which Iraqis will have a chance to experience real advances – along with inevitable hiccups – toward national sovereignty, democratic accountability, political stability, physical security and material prosperity. During the past two years, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has consistently encouraged U.N. staff members here to take an active approach in implementing our assistance mandate. The Iraqi people have suffered prolonged trauma of epic proportions. All of us must do whatever is possible to facilitate their progress on the road on which they have embarked.

The writer is special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Iraq.

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