As U.S. troops continue to withdraw from Iraq, America’s relationship with the emerging democracy is evolving from a security-dominated military alliance into a more traditional bilateral relationship based on cooperation between civilian institutions. Michael Corbin, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq, analyzed recent developments on the ground and discussed the transition’s impact on diplomatic relations between the United States and Iraq. Marina Ottaway, director of Carnegie’s Middle East Program, moderated the discussion.

The Evolving Bilateral Relationship

  • The new Iraqi government: Although it took nine months for Iraqi lawmakers to form a coalition government, the newly seated government is fully committed to the task of rebuilding a post-conflict Iraq, Corbin said. He noted that the new government, led by incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is reminiscent of the inclusive political model of the 1950s, when Baghdad was viewed as a regional leader in healthcare, education, and the arts. Corbin was optimistic that Iraqi lawmakers are capable of making the rational political decisions necessary to help the country overcome entrenched sectarian divisions and emerge from decades of economic and diplomatic isolation.
  • Responding to local needs: As the United States moves from a relationship based “90 percent on security and 10 percent on everything else” into a more traditional diplomatic relationship with Iraq, Corbin stressed that the character of the partnership will be heavily informed by the needs and interests of the Iraqi people. He pointed to a new NGO law, ratified by the Council of Representatives on January 25, 2010, as an important mechanism for enabling popular participation in the national development process.  By removing restrictions on the funding and licensing of NGOs, the new legislation will make it easier for Iraqis to create and participate in organizations that are dedicated to addressing the people’s needs. 
  • Harnessing Iraqi resources: Although Corbin acknowledged that building the capacity of Iraqi institutions will be costly, he stressed that Iraqi development programs will be financed largely by the country’s own petroleum resources. However, the State Department will continue to rely on funding from Congress to provide Iraqi institutions with vital logistical support as they assume full responsibility for the country’s governance and economic growth.
  • Multi-dimensional cooperation: The new civilian partnership between the United States and Iraq will emphasize cooperation on a broad range of areas, including agriculture, economic development, and rule of law. Corbin placed particular emphasis on the need to revitalize the Iraqi educational system to meet the needs of a “lost generation” whose opportunities have been severely constrained by protracted military conflicts and civil war.
  • Supporting decentralization: One of the State Department’s priorities is to support the Iraqi-led process of decentralization, Corbin said. Iraq is emerging as one of the few countries in the Middle East where important policy and budgetary decisions are made outside of the capital. The January 2009 provincial elections marked an important milestone on the path to decentralization.  Iraqis are now better positioned to influence decision making at the local level through their engagement with newly empowered provincial councils The State Department is taking concrete steps—including the establishment of embassy branch offices in Kirkuk and Mosul and consulates in Basra and Irbil—to ensure that local governing institutions and the diverse constituencies they represent retain a voice in the political process, Corbin added.

A Challenging Transition

Corbin addressed several challenges that will confront Iraq’s leadership, as well as U.S. civilian agencies, in the post-conflict period:

  • The need for sectarian compromise: Although relations between Iraq’s rival sectarian factions have improved substantially in recent months, crucial compromises must still be negotiated, particularly with regard to the equitable allocation of the country’s petroleum resources. Access to petroleum remains a flashpoint for Kurdish-Arab relations and the State Department continues to view the proposed hydrocarbons law—a stalled piece of legislation first submitted to the Council of Representatives in 2007—as an essential step toward ensuring a fair distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth.  
  • Checking executive power: The Iraqi Council of Representatives has grown from 275 members to 325 members since 2005 following an amendment to the national election law. Corbin argued that the newly assertive parliament must play an active role in checking the power of the executive branch. Despite indications that the legislative body is committed to achieving a balanced government, the relationship between parliament and the executive branch remains vulnerable to friction and will need to be managed carefully over time.
  • Heightened risk of corruption: As Iraq’s oil revenues increase, so will the potential for institutional corruption. The judiciary, the Council of Representatives, and the independent media can all play a role in promoting a transparent and accountable Iraqi government, but Corbin cautioned there are no quick or easy remedies to corruption. Ultimately, he said, the executive branch will need to take the lead in combatting corruption.  

Iraq’s Emerging Regional Role

As Iraq takes steps to reenter the international community and global economic regimes, international observers are scrutinizing this process of reintegration to gauge its impact on the regional balance of power.

  • Foreign investment: As the Iraqi Oil Ministry continues to solicit international bids for petroleum contracts, foreign involvement in the oil sector will play an important role in catalyzing national economic growth. Corbin described the successful early oil bidding rounds as “the tip of the iceberg for bringing in foreign investment.”
  • The end of economic isolation: As Iraq seeks to reintegrate into global economic regimes, the United States is urging the United Nations to lift Chapter 7 sanctions that have required Iraq to pay reparations to Kuwait since the 1991 Gulf War. In December, President Obama told visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that his administration would push the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom—to eliminate the punishing sanctions. 
  • Strengthening ties with regional players: Iraq is taking unprecedented steps to repair its relations with regional players, including Kuwait, which has remained skeptical of Iraqi intentions ever since Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1990. Corbin identified the rapprochement with Kuwait as a major diplomatic milestone that signals Iraq’s readiness to reenter the international community. Iraq has also taken steps to strengthen its bilateral relationships with Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other key regional stakeholders.
  • Iranian influence: Corbin downplayed the significance of Iran’s influence over the Iraqi government. Although Tehran may be able to exercise soft power through the signing of economic agreements, Iranian efforts to exert leverage through more forceful instruments—such as the Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group known as Jaysh al-Mahdi—have largely failed. In response to Ottaway’s suggestion that the United States and Iran may compete to enhance their respective soft power in Iraq, Corbin replied that Iraq’s own strategic interests dictate its cooperation with Arab and American partners. Iraq would prefer to import high-quality goods from Turkey rather than lower-grade products from Iran.