Karen Dabrowska

Discussion and Book Launch

22nd September 2015

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Open Discussions/Gulf Cultural Club

Reforming Iraq; Prospects and challenges

Chris Doyle*
Dr Zuhair Al-Naher**
Karen Dabrowska***
Discussion panel

Discussion panel (left to right): Dr Zuhair Al-Naher, Laith Kubba (chairman), Karen Dabrowska, Chris Doyle

[A video of the discussion is available on the Abrar House channel on YouTube: click here.]

The destabilisation of Iraq in the past decade has contributed to the state of anarchy in the Middle East, the rise of extremism and the mushrooming of terrorism. To achieve stability, Iraq must be supported to achieve meaningful reforms and strong central government. Corruption, quota system and foreign intervention are among the illnesses of the country. What are the prospects of Iraq’s transformation into a sovereign, democratic and stable power? These challenges will be debated at this seminar.

Karen Dabrowska will present her new book: Iraq; the ancient sites & Iraqi Kurdistan.

Chairman Laith Kubba (former spokesman for the Iraqi government): I have just returned from a very short visit to Iraq so I don’t assume I can add to the discussions or comments more than my impressions. I worked for the Iraqi government. Iraq has by now become a very tough challenge. It has proved to everybody that it is so much easier to get rid of a dictator than to build a healthy situation for democracy. So it is extremely challenging and with what is going on in the rest of the Middle East, be it Syria, Yemen or Libya. I think this sheds light on a much deeper challenge in the region, beyond simply a government or a dictator or an ideology. It is an indication of much deeper problem out there. We can all have impressions and insights. The real challenge is how to resolve the situation and to move forward.

Chris Doyle: It is a great pleasure to address you. Eid Mubarak to everybody. I give you my greetings at this time as we look at wide scale disasters across the Middle East. It is obviously not a time for huge celebrations. Thank you to Karen for inviting me. I love the fact that there is a book geared towards tourism in Iraq. That is a huge triumph of optimism. I very much welcome the days when Iraq is really open for the sort of tourism that its history, its culture and its people deserve. It has been my privilege to have been able to visit Iraq a few times – it is a country that I can only wish the best for and hope that it can come out of the troubles it has had for many decades.

This evening I will look at Iraq from an international perspective and from the context of what is going on in the region and then zoom in casting some thoughts and ideas about where we have gone wrong and why. I leave it to my colleagues here who are more expert on the country itself to look at the detail, the changes, the reforms and some of the trends on the ground.

Iraq is going through a difficult period. That expression reminds me of how Chairman Mao described the great famine of China. It is very tough. It occurs at a time when the region is going through simultaneous crises. Syria as well. Yemen, Libya and other countries. Long gone are the days when you can focus on one issue. You have to look at them all. They are all interconnected but also have their distinct specificities.

My first point would be to query whether the international community is in any way prepared or suited to deal with this at this moment. I am reminded of a story a former British ambassador told me about a Labour Foreign Secretary many years who when he entered office told his officials: “As far as the Middle East is concerned I don’t want to hear anything about it for at least six months and then only if it is absolutely important you can give me one side of A4 so I see where the bloody hell it is.”

I suspect that ministers in the Foreign Office now don’t get sixty minutes without having to reflect somewhat on events in the Middle East. What has happened just this month is the clear realisation in Britain and much of Europe that what goes on in the Middle East will affect us here – we cannot live insulated from these sorts of events whether it be in terms of refugees and migrants or indeed in terms of security, the economy and any failures on our part in trying to help the region through these crises will have an impact here. We do not live in a disconnected world.

Are we really well equipped enough to look at the region. I doubt it. I think we still have the same number of ministers in Britain looking at all of these crises. I don’t think there are enough foreign language experts in the Foreign Office. I think that would apply across Europe. I think that this explains in part why we fail to understand why the events of 2011 took place. I think it also points to why we fail to understand the implications of 2003 and our failures in carrying out military action in Iraq and in particular the occupation. So we have to look at the region with humility – especially Britain because of our historic failures in Iraq. Iraq knows more about those than any other country in the region.

Now if you don’t look at a country like Iraq, or Libya or Yemen for even a couple days things have changed hugely in the actors on the ground, the various groups, the individuals that you need to keep tabs on would have changed. It presents challenges for the international community and also for the regional players. I think it challenges the assumptions of just how much anybody really knows about the Middle East. I have always been struck by how difficult it is for people living in the Middle East to actually travel from country to another due to the visa regimes. There is a presumption that people in the Gulf would know a country like Syria or people in North Africa would know Iraq somehow. This is a presumption that some journalists would make. I remember seeing Saudis going around Syria for the first time six or seven years ago and it was like a new world to them because they simply were not travelling there until then. So there is a lot that is being uncovered by all of these trends and that adds to the challenge of really understanding the solutions.

When looking at Iraq and our response to Iraq broadly I think there is a failure to realise that the Iraq crisis did not start in 2003. Iraq has undergone a serious of very horrific events be it under the Saddam Hussein regime, the Iran, Iraq war, 1991, the sanctions era and of course everything that has happened since 2003.

The different communities in Iraq have experienced these catastrophes in different ways. Obviously the Kurds have a different experience to the people living in Anbar, which is different to the experience of those living in the south. We need to understand that. We need to understand history. People tend to forget that. The people in this audience won’t but the outside world does forget how Iraq came about, how it was put together, the way in which the French and the British drew the lines in the sand.

We look now at an Iraq and how can the international community contribute positively to helping. When we are talking about reform in Iraq how can the outside world be helpful and constructive as opposed to interfering and obstructive. I am not particularly optimistic. There are still many people who would like to split up Iraq for their own reasons. Not necessarily for the interests of individuals or groups within Iraq but for their own narrow interests. Maybe Iraq does have to split up, maybe it does have to become a federal state but that should be for Iraqis to decide for Iraqi reasons.

How can we help in a country that is obviously wracked by violence, that has Dash controlling large amounts of territory, that now clearly has issues of sectarian divisions (whether it had them in the past or not). Some of the reforms are aimed at tackling the sectarian quota system and the like. So the question will that work? Can you unravel some of these issues with the reforms? I think it is a very, very tough challenge considering where Iraq is now after all the violence on all sides. There are no parties who can claim to be clean on this including as I said internationally what we have done as Britain.

So to make Iraq viable this reform process does need to go forward. There does need to be a government in Baghdad that is credible, effective and transparent. Clearly there are issues of corruption and the international community has contributed to that. Clearly there are issues of whether the government in Baghdad has a monopoly on the use of force. Currently I think it is very clear that it does not. That is the primary purpose of the state. That you have the sole and legitimate right to use force and govern under the rule of law. That has not happened. It is going to need that huge transformation. And how can you exercise proper command and control over the Iraqi militias? I would be interested to see if there are any real moves to see that happening in reality on the ground with these militias. Certainly if you are going to win over communities that are disaffected with the government in Baghdad that is going to be absolutely necessary.

The way in which the international community is now most involved in Iraq is the battle against Dash. One of the things that concerns me about both Iraq and Syria is that this has become the whole prism through which people like David Cameron and Barak Obama and even Valdamir Putin look at Iraq now. Once you have solve Dash Syria and Iraq will be solvable themselves. Dash is a great challenge for these countries and for the region but obviously it is not the only one.

Coalition air strikes are not really going to break the back of Dash as a force. They have been doing this for a year and now Britain may be debating on whether to expand its strikes against Syria. If the Americans have not been able to knock back Dash in Syria what will five or six RAF tornadoes do that will materially change the situation? I think it is very difficult to see that.

I think there is also a failure to understand the politics – the politics of how do you deal in terms of the communications and win over communities who do not wish to be under that sort of regime but see them as the only people who will ultimately defend them, provide security or provide the services that the state would normally provide.

You can see that Dash has been able to provide the things that a state normally would and actually in getting your children to school and ensuring that you are safe on the streets they have delivered in a way that the Syrian opposition forces have notably failed to do. It is now the function of the state that people who are scared for their lives are most keen on seeing. And democracy is somewhere down the road. Jobs and livelihood are important.

I am sure that has not sunk in. There are still politicians who say it is not a state. Well it is acting very much like a state whether we like it or not. It has its own currency, it has its own departments, it has its own civil servants, it is providing water and electricity. We have to realise this.

If we are truly going to take things forward in both Iraq and in Syria then it is going to take forward there needs to be regional and international will to deal with these issues. There needs to be a consensus in Iraq that the only way forward will be by trying to put aside historic differences and recent differences and realise that it can’t be a win-lose scenario. Unfortunately to much politics in the Middle East has been on a winner-loser basis. Look at Egypt as being perhaps the most clear example of this. This does not work.

You have to find a way in which all communities in Iraq and also in Syria feel that they get something out of an eventual political settlement that can allow these countries to go forward in one way or another. It is not for me to say what that political settlement should be but it certainly needs to be an inclusive one. And it certainly should be one in which outside powers and regional powers are not interfering and not abusing proxies, arming their own and preferred politicians. And it will come back to haunt them whether it is Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey. If they interfere in neighbouring states as perhaps Turkey is finding out more than any of them right now it does actually risk destabilising their own territories.

Laith Kubba: Thank you very much Chris for putting Iraq in this perspective which is both historical and global and as bleak as reality in Iraq is I actually see more light when I put it in the context of both history and global changes. The instability in Iraq and the security challenges in Iraq have moved beyond challenges. Now they have become existential challenges. What sort of Iraq is it going to be and what sort of changes are we going to see in the region? It is happening at a brutal cost of human suffering and this is the real challenge. For Iraqis themselves while many forces have aligned themselves to influence the trajectory of where Iraq is heading they ultimately have the will the power and the ability to influence that trajectory. Iraq is their country. I move to Karen and maybe we will have the whole thing from a different perspective as you give us a different angle on the challenges in Iraq.

Karen at the book launch

Karen Dabrowska at the launch of her new book, Iraq; the ancient sites & Iraqi Kurdistan

Karen Dabrowska: Can I ask you a question? How many people do you think visited Iraq last year? The answer is 20 million Shia Muslims who took part in the Arbeen procession in Najaf. This is the world’s largest gathering of people. And the pilgrims become tourists so Iraq had the largest number of tourists in 2014. There is some advice given to tourists and if everyone followed this advise the problems of Iraq would be solved: take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.

Iraq the ancient sites and Iraqi Kurdistan is a travel guide. Of course it talks about history, culture, hotels and restaurants. But if you only read one page please read page 116 on putting something back and sponsor an orphan through World Wide Welfare.

Most of the information for the book was collected first hand by my co-author Geoff Hann of Hinterland Travel. He is in Iraq now on another trip and he has been running trips to Iraq for the past 30 years with only a brief stop during the two Gulf wars. He was all ready to cross the border when the 2003 war broke out so he took went to Syria instead. Sadly he couldn’t do so today.

In as triumph of hope over experience the Iraqi Tourism Board maintains a staff of 2,500 and 14 regional offices. (Maybe less now in view of Prime Minister Abadi’s anti-corruption drive). Travel to Iraq is complex, sometimes maddening, often inconvenient. Nothing is certain. The main attractions in the whole country can be seen in 16 days.

The land between the two rivers Tigris and Euphrates is a jigsaw puzzle with three main pieces: 20% is the mountainous snow-clad north (Iraqi Kurdistan) the desert representing 59% (so when we say ISIS controls a third of Iraq a lot of what they control is essentially desert so inhospitable that even the scorpions and rattle snakes feel miserable there) and the southern alluvial plain with the marshlands home of the Marsh Arabs.

You may be wondering during this troubled time in Iraq what is the use of a travel guide? What is the point of history, culture, what can it do? It can give hope and point the way to a better future.

Let me read you a news report of how one musician reacted to the violence. The cellist set down his chair on the Baghdad sidewalk, leaned his instrument on his knee, closed his eyes and began to play. The music rose above the buzz of the busy shopping street, where just a day earlier another devastating car bomb had exploded. A crowd drew in: policemen, passersby, friends of those killed by the blast. As the musician played the national anthem, the voices of the crowd rose with him. Karim Wasfi, conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, had decided to play amid the wreckage to drive home a message. Iraqis needed to experience beauty, not just endure one bomb after another.

In the introduction the book has a historical section. History has a lot of lessons for us. The Islamic state is talking about creating a caliphate – but have they read history? Do they know that the Abbasids emphasised the equality of all Muslims. There was no talk of Sunnis and Shias. A magnificent cultural renaissance spanned 750 – 842 the reigns of the dynasty’s first seven rulers. The arts were patronised and learning of every sort was encouraged. Classics from many languages were translated into Arabic at the House of Knowledge.

Mamun was a religious scholar and the second of the only two caliphs in Islamic history who knew the entire Koran by heart. Under his regime one day a week was always set apart for literary, and philosophical or scientific discussion. Advance thy arguments and answer without fear,” said the caliph at the opening of a session for religious debate and answer without fear for there is none here that will not speak thee well. Let everyone speak, who has wisdom to demonstrate the strength of his religion. There are many records of religious debates between Muslims and non Muslims. Open discussions. We still have them now in Abrar House.

Iraq has become a land of oppression but in 1780BC Hammarubi King of Babylon promulgated his code of 282 laws whose guiding principle was that the strong may not oppress the weak. A champion of human rights long before Amnesty International.

How many of us realise that our superstitious impulse to turn back when a black cat crosses our path stems from the people of Babylon? Do they come to mind when we look at the twelve divisions on our watch face, when we buy eggs by the shock (sixty) when we look up at the stars to read our faith in their movements and conjunctions? The British coronation ceremony has elements of Mesopotamian rituals.

As author Hadani Ditmars pointed out, “Iraq, where language and architecture made their first appearance and a robust culture flourished and still struggles to survive, is now a country of widows and orphans, of angry young men and their rival militias. Its ancient sites, who have witnessed so many empires come and go, could unite Iraqis in their moment of crisis.

“They are a reminder that long before the British or the Americans, long before IS or the Baath party, there was Uruk. Before there were Muslims or Christians, Sunni or Shi’a, Arabs or Kurds, there was Mesopotamia. And there is a power in that a glimmer of hope amidst the madness.”

But tragically Iraq’s archaeological sites are under threat. Even before ISIS the seriousness of conditions caused by wars, sanctions, collapse of the infrastructure, looting, military bases stationed within the sites themselves accelerated decay to the point where the World Monuments Fund put an entire country on its biannual list of the one hundred most endangered sites. Some of the statues are now in the much maligned British Museum. Poet Elroy Flecker reminds us that:

There is a hall in Bloomsbury
No more dare I thread
For all the stone men shout and me
And swear they are not dead.
And once I touched a broken girl
And new that marble bled

Today Iraqi is bleeding. Please join me in observing a minute’s silence for the victims of the senseless violence. Thank you.

I will make a few brief comments about the north, central Iraq and the south.

The region of Kurdistan in the north is a fascinating place of natural beauty, warm friendly people and a long, interesting and often tragic history. The name of the book is Iraq the ancient sites and Iraqi Kurdistan. You can travel to Kurdistan on an Iraqi visa but you can’t travel to the rest of Iraq on a Kurdish visa. The status of the Kurds is interesting as explained by a waiter in an Arbil hotel. “We have jam but we have no jam. That is because we are a people but we are no people. We are a nation but we have no nation.”

In Arbil which I visited in March stands a statue of the Virgin Mary. The fact that this statue has been left untouched while most of the churches in Mosul just 60kms away says a lot Kurdistan. I don’t need to say any more.

Baghdad: The story of the city named the City of Peace by its founder (Abu Jaffar Al Mansour) is largely the story of continuous war. Sometimes war helps culture. A bomb ripped through Mutanabi Street, the famous book market on March 5, 2007. Writers and artists throughout the world expressed solidarity and support and through an international campaign Mutanabi street is almost as well known as the thousand and one nights. Wherever someone sits down to write towards the truth or someone sits down with a book, that that's where Al-Mutanabbi Street starts.

The Sunni Triangle and ISIS territory. Fallujah, one of the most dangerous places in Iraq if not in the world once had 200 mosques. It dates back to Babylonian times. During the Sassanid era (AD 277 – 636) there were many warehouse for Persian troops which can still be seen today.

Anbar. In January 2013 an arts festival as part of preparations to celebrate Baghdad as the Capital of Arab Culture was held in Anbar. The Culture House director Fawzi Mutlaq said: “The solidarity reflected in the art work, which depicted the indivisibility of the people in all their segments, set forth a model for brotherhood and endurance in the face of terror.”

Let us go back nearly 100 years. In 1923 the Narin brothers, New Zealanders set off across the desert in a taxi – three days later they arrived at the Maude Hotel in Baghdad. From then on they offered a mail, diplomatic bag and bullion transporting service to various embassies and consulates in Damascus and Baghdad across what is now ISIS territory.

The marshes, Iraq’s first national park, are one of the most beautiful parts of Iraq. The area is lush with small boats gliding on the calm waterways. There are countless birds. The marshes drained by Saddam have been flooded again and the marsh Arabs were able to continue their tradition life style much as they had in Sumerian times. In May ISIS captured the Ramadi Dam and reportedly cut water supplies to government controlled areas further downstream – including the marshlands which are under threat once again.

In the south there are many small charming towns including Abul Khasib which has the highest density of palm trees in the world. There is Qurnah site of the legendary Garden of Eden. Sorry folks. The Garden of Eden is a concrete parking lot and tree of life is dead.

We are seeing a battle for the soul of Iraq as ISIS does its best to transform it into a howling wilderness devoid of civilization and culture and dominated by the most uncivilized of barbarians.

The Iraqi people were once like a necklace where the thread of nationality united a variety of unique and colourful beads. Today the thread holding the necklace together is becoming increasingly fragile as ethnic and religious conflicts continue to claim more and more lives.

Banham Igzeer a Christian calligrapher who uses Biblical and Quranic verses described Mosul as a city which moved from co-existence to non existence as the Christians were ethnically cleansed. He is London now and is supposed to be retired but he said he will keep working until he can hold an exhibition in Baghdad, Mosul and Arbil.

I would like to conclude with a quote from Gavin Young author of Iraq Land of Two Rivers which is found in the introduction to my book: “If the oil should ever run out, the twin rivers will still uncoil like giant pythons from their lairs in High Armenia across the northern plains, will edge teasingly closer near Baghdad, still sway apart lower down, still combine finally at the site – who knows for sure that it was not? – the Garden of Eden and flow commingled through silent date forests to the Gulf. Whatever happens, the rivers – the life-giving twin rivers for which Abraham, Nebuchadnezzar, Sennacherib, Alexander the Great, Trajan, Harun Al Rashid and a billion other dwellers in Mesopotamia must have raised thanks to their gods – will continue to give life to other generations.”

Laith Kubba: Thank you very much Karen. That changed the angle not only of how we see things but if how we feel about Iraq. Your book will give wonderful insights into the many many hidden layers of three of four civilisations that Iraq has. A different perspective while we are all very much grabbed by the tension of reality but I think putting it in that much bigger context changes how we feel about things. I go to Zuhair Al-Naher who is going to give a more political angle to what is going on.

Dr Zuhair Al-Naher: I thank the organisers of this debate for raising a very, very important topic the title of which is reforming Iraq, prospects and challenges. After the removal of Saddam Iraq was essentially a broken country. Broken because it had endured 30 years of war, tyranny and dictatorship. Its organisations were rotten to the core as a result of corruption, and as a result of the ten years of sanctions the mentality of scarcity not only demolished the institutions but also affected the people very deeply.

Iraq was ruined by Saddam and it has been ruined even more after Saddam. The challenges which Iraq was left with were multiple. In terms of corruption there was a lot of interference from the coalition which encouraged corruption. They turned a blind eye but they also encouraged it.

The political system that was set up at that time was based essentially on sectarian interests which remained a challenge and remain a challenge to this day. They are an obstacle to reform. The political establishment left much to be desired. There was a lack of experience in management. The army by the time Saddam left there was no army to speak of. Most of the army had deserted.

So when we talk about reforms in Iraq now, anyone who goes about reforming Iraq now has huge, huge challenges. Firstly the challenges are on many different levels. They are multifactorial. Reform needs to happen in the institutions, in the ministries, in the political system, in the judicial system, in economic system.

The previous governments did not address reform in the right way and when we talk about now this is why there are so many protests and demonstrations by the people because they have had enough. The demonstrations are country-wide and continuing. The religious leadership has supported this and the people have given the new prime minister, Haider Abadi, a mandate to strike with an iron fist at those who are corrupting the system.

Haider Abadi faces a huge challenge. He faces challenges on many levels. He has made a start and it is only a start. The start is firstly to declare that he will eliminate many of the top positions which are bleeding the country of resources. So he has cut out the three vice presidents and deputy prime ministers. He has announced that the huge number of body guards for the officials must be cut down 90 percent in order to save and avoid wastage and those numbers to be put to the war effort against Dash rather than to protect individual officials.

He has announced that there should be more equalising of pay between the higher officials and the lower paid civil servants. He has put a programme forward of reforming the judiciary and to develop and reform the economy so that it is not dependent on oil and he tried to increase the farming sector and the industrial sector. He has also, and this very important, that political decisions will not be based on the sectarian interests of the various groups (muhassasa). This is to be eliminated. There will be no interests of groups. There will be the interest of Iraq. And he has put forward a system whereby ministers are scrutinised by independent committees for their ability to perform and for their levels of corruption.

So all of these are a start. He faces challenges as I have said. Most of the challenges he is facing are from the system that has been steeped in corruption and from political blocs who have their own interests at heart. He is trying to implement these changes but I believe that he is determined for these changes to be successful. He said he is determined to go through with these changes even if it costs his life.

So we must not get overly excited because as I said the challenges are huge but I believe this is a beginning and it is supported by the people who are determined to see change and reform in Iraq.

* Chris Doyle is the Director of CAABU. He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honours degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As part of this course he spent a year in Alexandria. Since then he has travelled widely in the Middle East and North Africa. In 1996 Chris moved to work for a professional government relations firm but returned to a more senior role at CAABU in 1997. In November 2002, he was made full-time Director.

As the lead spokesperson for CAABU and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He regularly has articles published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organised and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries.

** Dr Zuhair Al-Naher is the Spokesperson for the Islamic Da’wa Party in UK. He started his political activity in 1980 among the ranks of the Islamic Union of Iraqi Students, joining the Party in 1982. He became active in political and media activities during the 80s and 90s organising demonstrations, pickets and media relations. In 1997 he was appointed to the Leadership Committee of the Dawa Party in the UK. In 2000 Dr Al-Naher became spokesperson for the Party in the UK. He was the Political Representative of the Iraqi PM in UK 2005-2007. In 2008 he became Director of the International relations office of the Dawa party, and liaised with the administration of Prime Minister Nori Al-Maliki. Activities included communications and meetings with MPs, the Foreign Office and political representatives in the UK and Europe.

*** Karen Dabrowska is a freelance journalist who has been writing about the Middle East and Islamic Affairs for over 20 years. She is currently London correspondent of the Arab Weekly and has contributed articles to the Guardian and Middle East Magazine. She was the London correspondent of the Tripoli Post, editor of New Horizon Magazine and assistant editor of Islamic Tourism Magazine. Her books include Brad't first travel guide to Iraq, Iraq: Then And Now, a guide to Addis Ababa, Into the Abyss: Human Rights Violations in Bahrain and Suppression of the popular movement for change and a collection of short stories: Melancholy Memories; Foreign Dreams.