As U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq in December, the Carnegie Middle East Center held a closed-door roundtable discussion on Iraq’s challenges and opportunities. The day-long conference brought together 22 Iraqi and foreign experts in various fields—including politics, security, economics, law, business, anthropology, and social policy—who discussed the political, legislative, security, and socio-economic challenges facing Iraq. 

Constitutional and Legislative Reform

  • Need for reform: The Iraqi constitution has a number of shortcomings, including inconsistencies in the text and a lack of clarity over how key articles should be interpreted, the panelists agreed. Some speakers pointed out that as the constitution was drafted, it tried to accommodate each party rather than regulate Iraq’s overall political system. 

  • Problems with laws: The Electoral Law was also described as ineffective, and many participants argued that it has produced results that are at odds with the wishes of Iraqi voters. Furthermore, no law exists to govern the formation or activity of political parties in Iraq, which panelists repeatedly raised as a cause for concern.

  • Lack of consensus: Disagreement among political parties hampers much-needed constitutional reform, the panelists said. But many identified the constitution itself as cause for such divisions in the political arena.Putting the interest of the state ahead of individual politicians and overcoming partisanship were identified as crucial steps to fortifying state institutions, and respecting the rule of law. 

Iraq's Security Strategy 

  • Security challenges remain: While security in Iraq has improved in recent years, serious challenges still exist. The panelists agreed that the weakness of the current security forces began at their inception, when former irregular corps were expected to integrate quickly into the structure of a state force after the fall of the Ba’athist Regime. 

  • Political problem: Many speakers agreed that the security problem in Iraq is a political one. Political rather than security entities dominate recruitment, deployment of the security forces, and strategic decision making. This leads to poor professionalism and a lack of coordination between the army and police. The need for political consensus was identified as a key step to improve security, as it will help build a shared national security strategy to improve professionalism and coordination between different branches of the security forces. Concomitantly, there is a need to find consensus over what the major threat to Iraq is. A debate was opened on whether the Ba’ath and other transnational groups are still a real priority threat or whether internal players as well as foreign interference in Iraq pose a bigger threat.

Managing Foreign Interference and Iraq’s Regional Role    

Panelists offered conflicting views over the role of foreign interference in Iraq, particularly regarding the continuing U.S. presence in Iraq and Iran’s role in the country. 

  • U.S.-Iraq: Some participants emphasized the urgent need for a more balanced relationship between Iraq and the United States, and said the decision about any continued American presence should be made at the national level. 

  • Iran-Iraq: Several speakers said that Iranian involvement in Iraq’s affairs is inevitable so long as Iraq remains politically and strategically “immature.” They claimed that only when Iraq’s internal house is in order can it be more assertive in relations with its neighbors.  

Improving Service Provisions to Foster National Integration   

  • Poor state services: The deplorable state of state services in Iraq—including electricity, sanitation, health care, and education—concerned many participants, as did the high rates of unemployed and underemployed Iraqis. They emphasized the need to dramatically improve Iraq’s electricity sector, not only for the country’s economic development, but for its security as well. 

  • Obstacles to service provision: Despite plans to improve basic services, the main obstacles in providing services are a lack of coordination between the central government and provincial agencies, the poor quality of employees, and, most importantly, the use of service provision as a political tool.  Although, some favored a public-sector approach, while others maintained that the private sector would better address these problems, there was a general consensus on the need to generate opportunities for locals.

  • Services and politics: Economic conditions and service provisions will only improve when the government and institutions prioritize public interests over their own. Only then Iraqis can be expected to vote out of preference, and not out of dependence on tribal or sectarian power structures. 

The Role of Tribes 

In discussing the state’s relationships to tribes, some participants played down the political significance of tribal allegiances in the governorates, while others argued they were of crucial significance, even constituting a parallel state structure in some areas. Some panelists emphasized the positive role that tribal culture can play, citing dispute resolution as an example. Others stressed the importance to acknowledge the presence of tribes but underlined the need for them to be excluded from security and state apparatus. Participants agreed on the importance of finding a balance between respect for cultural and social traditions without compromising state sovereignty.

The Federal Government-Governorate Relationship    

  • Lack of cooperation: A lack of clarity in defining the role of central and provincial authorities is one reason for the challenges to security and service provision and public policy implementation in Iraq. Speakers raised concerns about the lack of cooperation between the federal and local government over the management of security. Functions and duties of the army and the police forces must be clearly identified to ensure cooperation. 

  • Policy implementation: Participants also called for a clear direction in implementing public policy and supervising projects. Some suggested the central government could issue legislation while the provincial councils could implement it, as they are more in tune with the needs of the governorates. 

Going Forward: Making Iraq Part of the Regional Change 

  • Goals for Iraq: The short- and medium-term goals for Iraq include constitutional and key legislative reforms; improved cohesion and professionalism in the security forces; and greater social inclusion through better service provision, employment opportunities, and clearer, more effective relations between the federal and local levels of government, the participants said. 

  • Need for a shared vision on Iraq: Panelists agreed on the need to envision an overarching blueprint for Iraq, on which all parties concur, that puts the interest of the state ahead of politicians and parties, and is inspired by the wave of change and reform that has engulfed the region. Without such a vision, very little progress would be possible on other fronts, they said. 

  • Iraq and recent regional developments: Recent uprisings in several countries have become a fertile laboratory for developing a vision on constitutional reform. This vision is likely to be developed among academics and outside of the political arena, establishing an influential lobby across the region, including Iraq, participants concluded.