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Archive: October 2008
For Future's Sake, Gov't Must Step Up Efforts for Young Refugees: Brookings
10/16/2008 3:48 PM ET
Below is full text of a statement released this week, authored by Navtej Dhillon, Director of the Brookings Middle East Youth Initiative and Elizabeth Ferris, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute. The two argue that the Iraqi government has not taken sufficient measures to include displaced Iraqi youth into the reconstruction and reconciliation efforts.

The reconstruction of Iraq needs the commitment and resources of its entire people. Yet the Iraqi government and the international community have neglected the current generation of Iraqi youth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of young Iraqi refugees who have the potential to transform their homeland.

Youth, not oil, is Iraq's most precious asset in building a stable and prosperous future. In 2002, before the US invasion, around 60% of Iraq's population was under the age of 30 – many with high school and university education. Today, too many of those young people are among the 2.2 million Iraqi refugees living in countries such as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

As Iraq takes important steps towards national reconciliation and economic development, no one is paying attention to young Iraqi refugees. Their plight is largely portrayed through a sectarian lens. But when the focus shifts to the age of those uprooted, it is clear that a large number are young men and women, struggling with displacement at the prime of their life. Rather than building their future careers and families, their plans are on hold and their hopes are in limbo.

Omar al-Rawi, a 26-year-old Iraqi refugee, arrived in Syria in 2006 after receiving a letter that threatened his life and his family. "One night, 70 young men received a threatening letter. Like my peers I had to leave in two days. I believe it was an attempt to empty Iraq of its educated youth," Omar says.

Like Omar, more than a million of other young Iraqis now live in exile. Unable to return to Iraq, they face limited opportunities in host countries to continue their education or earn a living. Many do not attend school, even when education is free, due to lack of documentation, overcrowding in classrooms and financial difficulties. Faced with poverty, they are compelled to work in the informal sector to support their families. Some become vulnerable to extreme measures: some young women are forced into prostitution and young men feel pressure to join insurgent groups because they offer a steady income.

While some Iraqis have returned from neighbouring countries in recent months and while most displaced Iraqis say they want to return to their communities when it is safe to do so, the returnees so far account for less than 1% of the total displaced. Most Iraqis, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, do not feel that security conditions have improved sufficiently for large-scale refugee return. But returns depend on more than improved security; until public services are restored and there is confidence in the government's capacity and impartiality, most Iraqis will choose to stay where they are. And some Iraqis, particularly minorities, may never return to Iraq.

While the goal must be to support young Iraqis to return to Iraq, much more needs to be done to support them during their displacement. The Iraqi government is brimming with oil money but so far it has only allocated $200 million out of a $70 billion budget for refugees and displaced. Additional funds should be used to urgently foster hope in the form of scholarships for study, vocational training tailored to market conditions, and support to marry and build families. And it is in the interests of the international community, including the host countries, to support these efforts.

With forthcoming local elections, there are new possibilities for political reconciliation, but provisions should be made to ensure that those living outside the country have the opportunity to participate. This is where Iraqi youth will have much to contribute to their country's future. Once promised democracy, they must now be given the means to exercise their rights.

Iraq cannot afford to lose this generation. Exiled communities and especially the young can be a positive force for change. In South Africa and Namibia, hundreds of thousands of refugees from the apartheid regimes were able to receive education and acquire skills that positioned them well when they were eventually able to return to their countries. Today in southern India, some Tamil organisations are supporting young refugees to acquire university degrees in areas where Sri Lanka needs particular expertise.

Testing times lie ahead for Iraq. The government is struggling to bring economic prosperity for ordinary citizens. Political stability hinges on local election turnout. The youth of Iraq must be mobilised to participate in the reconstruction and reconciliation of their country.

Dems Assume Endless Sectarian Conflict, Misread Iraqi Nationalism, Analyst Says
By REIDAR VISSER 10/03/2008 3:05 PM ET
Below is full text of a new blog post by Reidar Visser, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs, who calls out Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden over remarks he made in last night's vice presidential debate, in which the senator claimed that Iraqi society had suffered from intense sectarian conflict over the last "700 years." That claim, Visser writes, is related to a larger Democratic strategy for dealing with Iraq policy.

During yesterday’s vice-presidential debate, Joe Biden repeated the basic thrust of Barack Obama’s comments on Iraq one week ago. According to Biden, “John McCain was saying the Sunnis and Shiites got along with each other without reading the history of the last 700 years.”

In other words, Barack Obama’s apparent assumption of an endless conflict between Sunnis and Shiites Iraq was more than a slip of the tongue. Instead this seems to constitute a key ingredient in the Democratic narrative on Iraq: the country can be held together only by a strong ruler, otherwise Shiites and Sunnis would be at each other’s throats. Biden’s incarnation of the argument also served to clarify that Democrats quite literally are thinking of hundreds of years when they advance this contention; by his counting, the problems began in the early fourteenth century. That is certainly a slightly odd place to start, since Baghdad at the time was governed by Mongol rulers who themselves were rather difficult to label, sometimes they were pro-Shiite, sometimes pro-Sunni. At any rate, even if the exact number of centuries in this case may be attributable to a Biden idiosyncrasy, the main point is clear. Democrats do not think Shiites and Sunnis have any tradition of coexistence in Iraq.

This assumption overlooks the fact that there were in fact no more than three major episodes of large-scale sectarian violence in Iraq prior to the rise of the Baathists: in 1508, 1623 and 1801; in all cases violence was instigated by foreign invaders from Iran or the Arabian Peninsula. Still, many will dismiss this entire discussion. Why should we care about such historical details when there are bigger issues at stake such as the US economy? The reason these matters are important is that they relate to a more fundamental aspect of Democratic strategy in Iraq which has become clearly evident over the past weeks, despite apparent attempts by Joe Biden to avoid going into too much detail about his notorious “Iraq plans”. Democrats want a “settlement” in Iraq, otherwise they think that US forces will have to be sent back there again. (Biden told reporters a few weeks ago, “Without a political settlement, Tom, we’re going to be back there in another year or two or three or five.”)

A shift to the political sphere instead of the almost exclusive emphasis on the military seen among many Republican strategists, now that seems perfectly plausible. But the danger with regard to Democratic strategy has to do with exactly how they want to perform this shift and what sort of knowledge about Iraq is going to inform it. So far, three tendencies stand out: the Democrats want swiftness, involvement of the neighbours, and a “deal” to end what is seen as “centuries-long” conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis. Also – and this may come to a surprise to those who think of Democrats as less interventionist in the affairs of other nations than neo-Conservatives – Joe Biden’s confidence in America’s superior ability to handle these issues is not inconsiderable. Here are a few more notable quotes from his performance yesterday:

We took Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, being told by everyone, I was told by everyone that this would mean that they had been killing each other for a thousand years, it would never work .”

“When we kicked -- along with France, we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, I said and Barack said, ‘Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don't know -- if you don't, Hezbollah will control it (presumably this is an interesting way of referring to the process toward UN Security Council Resolution 1701). "

With regard to Iraq, this kind of arrogant drive towards a “settlement” would threaten to derail potentially positive developments currently going on inside the country, and would play into the hands of the neighbouring countries, especially Iran. It has to be stressed that those positive developments – a cross-sectarian alliance of parties generally seeking to diminish the exaggerated privileges accorded to ethno-sectarian forces in the 2005 constitution – take place despite current US policy, which continues to favour those who put sectarian identity and not Iraqiness first. Nevertheless, backers of the new political current have managed to move from a situation in which they were in the minority in parliament back in October 2006 (when the law for implementing federalism was adopted) to a position of strength in the summer of 2008 (when they created a parliamentary majority to demand exceptional interim arrangements for Kirkuk instead of a mere postponement of elections there and earned the name “the forces of 22 July”).

These forces have consistently been ignored by the Bush administration. It is now clear that the Democrats, too, are unable or unwilling to detect their existence. But the particularly dangerous aspect of Democratic strategy concerns the eagerness for the “settlement” to be quick and easy. Today, perhaps for the first time since 2003, it seems realistic to think that Iraq gradually may be able to fix itself, despite US policies that often work to the advantage of those who want to fish in sectarian waters. If the more nationalist forces continue to make advances in the provincial elections they could get to a position where they could contest the 2009 parliamentary elections as a wide coalition through mobilising on shared issues of constitutional reform with enormous resonance among the general population (among the recurrent slogans are “no cession of Kirkuk to Kurdistan”, “no sectarian federalism”, “no decentralisation of the oil sector” and “no ethno-sectarian quotas in government”). In that perspective, perhaps the best thing the United States could do would be to ensure two rounds of fair and free elections in 2009 and then leave – with a unified Iraq with out without Kurdistan as the most likely result. On the other hand, if we are to have a quick “settlement” based on Biden’s ideas about “700 years of conflict” and other similar guesswork about Iraqi history, then the region could very soon turn into a quagmire far worse than anything seen since 2003. It is in this perspective it is hard for an outsider to share the viewpoints of American intellectuals who talk of a big difference between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin when it comes to credibility on Iraq.

By Reidar Visser (

3 October 2008

DoD Misreads Nationalist Opposition, Iranian Influence, Analyst Says
By REIDAR VISSER 10/01/2008 5:26 PM ET
The Pentagon's latest quarterly report on Iraq gets key features of the situation wrong, writes Reidar Visser, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and a close watcher of southern Iraqi politics, in a blog post on his website, The Pentagon suffers from two "very basic problems" in its analysis, Visser writes: an overly sectarian interpretation of recent political events in Iraq, and a related misreading of the "channels of Iranian influence" in the Iraqi government. Full text is below:

Five Years On: The Pentagon Still Struggling to Make Sense of Iraq

By Reidar Visser (

1 October 2008

The US presidential candidates are not the only ones scrambling to put together a credible interpretation of the situation in Iraq these days. Today, Pentagon released its latest report to the US Congress, entitled “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq”.

There are two very basic problems in the report. The first concerns “the fundamental nature of the conflict in Iraq”. On p. viii the report bombastically asserts, “while security has improved dramatically, the fundamental character of the conflict in Iraq remains unchanged – a communal struggle for power and resources”. That is a about as wrong as one can be in describing the political dynamics of the past year. Just to give one very prominent example, the reason Iraqis are going to have provincial elections soon is that a broad opposition alliance of Shiites and Sunnis, Islamists and secularists, challenged the Maliki government to demand early elections and a firm timeline when the provincial powers law was debated last winter. 30 of the MPs behind this move were Sadrists. But this fact of cross-sectarian opposition cooperation does not seem to fit into the Pentagon narrative of "communal conflict" at all. Instead the passage of the legislation on provincial elections is hailed as an achievement of the “government of Iraq” (p. v) – even though the government resisted the elections all the way and repeatedly tried to scupper the process! And instead of recognising the role of the opposition in changing the atmosphere of Iraqi politics, the report repeatedly reverts to a focus on “lingering sectarianism” (p. 1 and p. 6) At least some parts of the US military blogosphere has picked up the growing debate about the cross-sectarian currents in today’s Iraq and it is remarkable that a Pentagon report like this one should go on so insistently with interpretations that perhaps made sense for a limited period in 2006 and early 2007.

The second main problem in the report has to do with the Pentagon’s take on Iranian influences in Iraq. The Department of Defense simply refuses do deal open-mindedly with the possibility of pro-Iranian influences inside the current Iraqi government. Instead the report brusquely asserts, “despite long-standing ties between Iraq and some members of the GoI, Tehran’s influence campaign is beginning to strain that relationship due to the rising perception that Iran poses a significant threat to Iraqi sovereignty.” Maybe it is the overuse of acronyms that prevents Pentagon analysts from detecting the problem here? Surely, when ISOF are conducting COIN with IP support to defeat the JAM and SGs and other undesirables, it all sounds so well organised that it almost comes across as unthinkable that Iranian interests could conceivably be served by these actions. At any rate, not one word is said about the massive Iranian influence in Najaf where the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq dominates, or about the repeated complaints by Shiite tribal leaders in the south that the government of Iraq is too close to Iran, or the continued praise for Iran by members of the Badr brigade, one of Washington’s supposed key allies among the Shiites of Iraq.

It is assumptions like these that drive the report authors to exaggerate again and again the significance of Nuri al-Maliki and Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim turning against some of their own Shiite enemies. Repeatedly, Maliki’s operations against Sadrists in Basra and elsewhere are described as the ultimate sign of a national attitude and something that should prompt Sunnis and the Arab world at large to instantly embrace the Maliki government (pp. vi, 8). Symptomatically, the decision by one relatively minor and office-seeking Sunni group to revert to their role in the government before the summer is spinned as “a welcome sign of re-engagement by Sunni Arabs at the national level” on p. 1. But it is the basic assumption that Iranian hands are only controlling and benefitting from the Sadrists and the “special groups” that is problematic. Instead Pentagon analysts should bear in mind what their “ally” Sadr al-Din al-Qabbanji of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq said about these matters in the Tehran-based ISCI newspaper Al-Muballigh al-Risali back in 1999 on 15 February, when he furiously criticised Muhammad al-Sadr for daring to start a revolt in Iraq without reference to Iran’s leadership: “We need to treat Khamenei’s leadership in the same fashion as Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr treated Khomeini’s leadership”, i.e. the supremacy of the leader of the Iranian republic should never be challenged. In other words: Historically, the unpredictable Sadrists have always been a problem and not an asset to Iran and ISCI; in 2007 they appeared to finally get better control of the situation as Muqtada was letft with no other option than to flee to Iran at the start of the surge. But instead, the Pentagon refers to “recognition of Coalition and ISF tactical superiority” as the main cause of the weakening of the Sadrists.

When these basic questions are not addressed in a nuanced way, it is very hard to ascribe much significance to the predictable succession of graphs and statistics and acronyms that take up the subsequent pages of the Pentagon report. These things all collapse if the underlying assumptions about the "fundamental nature of the conflict in Iraq" and Iran’s channels of influence are wrong.


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