The challenges of reconstruction

Thursday 17 April 2003, by Pierre BEAUDET

It is immediately obvious that the Iraq crisis, above and beyond the war that is about to end, is and will continue to be a long-term, multifaceted crisis.

Iraq never recovered from the 1991 war, or from the terrible aftermath of the war with Iran. Iraq’s social, economic and political structures were left completely disjointed. Saddam Hussein’s rule relied on the country’s fragmentation (retribalization) and on utilitarian management of the "oil for food" program. Beyond the widespread dilapidation of infrastructure, it is Iraqi society that has been dealt a severe blow.

Interventions by the UN did not make it possible to break the impasse, although they kept Saddam Hussein’s regime in survival mode. The disarmament and humanitarian aid programs kept things at a morbid status quo. It will be necessary to radically rethink the situation.

Neighbouring countries profited from Iraq’s drawn-out agony, to varying degrees, as much to preserve their economic and trade interests as to retain a certain influence over various communities in Iraq.

Foreign powers, including first and foremost the United States, Great Britain, France and Russia, also took advantage of this situation up until 2001. From that time on, it became apparent that Washington, and to a lesser extent London, wanted to change tacks.

In fact, in early 2001, a number of elements surfaced, which indicated that the situation had reached a turning point. Within Iraq, the build-up of crises within the regime and between it and various population groups seemed to herald a new a new period of unrest. There were several noticeable signs of this decline:

The defection of certain military and government officials.

The proliferation of small enclaves of power based on semi-autonomous militia forces.

The re-emergence of certain opposition forces (Kurdish parties, High Council of the Islamic Revolution, lay parties, etc.)

The relative consolidation of zones eluding central power in the North of the country.

The headlong plunge of the economy, and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of skilled Iraqi adults.

Undeniably, Saddam Hussein was able to manipulate the contradictions and maintain his control over an extensive repressive apparatus. However, it was external factors, over and above those internal contradictions, that played a decisive role. In fact, a few days after the events of September 11th, the U.S. administration took steps to gain control over Iraq. Following the last stand of the UN in the fall of 2002, everything was carefully orchestrated to get rid of Saddam Hussein. However, very little was done about "Post-Saddam Iraq," be it at the political level or in terms of reconstruction.

At the time of writing, the military coalition led by Washington had just taken the Iraqi capital. It therefore seems likely that the fighting will end in the next few days… Indeed, from the outset, the imbalance of power ruled out any outcome other than total victory for the U.S. army. However, as we well know, wars are 90% political and 10% military. From this perspective, we cannot be certain that the end of the fighting will mean the end of the war.


In Washington, at United Nations headquarters in New York, and in many European capitals, debate has reignited, this time over post-Saddam Iraq. Who will control the reconstruction effort? With whom? And to what end?
Rebuilding basic infrastructures is an obvious priority, alongside emergency humanitarian assistance for those directly affected by the war. This operation is fairly "easy" to get underway, given the mammoth logistics of the Washington-led coalition and the express willingness of several countries in the region to prevent a protracted humanitarian crisis.

The way this short-term reconstruction is carried out could, however, have a significant impact on subsequent events. One group close to the Bush administration would simply like the U.S. army to occupy the field, perhaps granting a limited role to Iraqis and Europeans working under U.S. command. Washington is presenting this as the most "normal" (’we’re the ones who waged the war, and it’s up to us to rebuild Iraq’) and simplest option (’to avoid bureaucratic and diplomatic red tape’). Washington then hopes to give the UN a limited role in managing humanitarian assistance, which would enable the United States to relinquish its obligations (under international law) and have the United Nations foot the bill.

This option is being contested, however, and could exacerbate the current split between Washington and the rest of the World. Some analysts see U.S. strategy as a series of improvised moves, adaptations, short-term visions that do not have a solid basis on close analysis of the Iraqi, regional and international context. The question remains whether the current war and Saddam Hussein’s overthrow are first and foremost domestic policy priorities for the United States. There is also cause to wonder whether it is influenced by people with a highly ideological vision, rather than a thorough analysis of the region, its contradictions and the various options for reconstruction.

Given this context, Iraq and the International Community may quickly find themselves facing fresh crises. The fragmentation of Iraq is not out of the question, if a new central power is set up under U.S. control, lacking legitimacy on the one hand, and aimed solely at controlling major infrastructures (particularly oil infrastructure) on the other. Such a governance gap would not be filled any more effectively by a last-minute Iraqi leadership hand-picked "off the bench" from the opposition networks that are the most subservient to the United States.
There are at least two basic conditions for avoiding this scenario:

The United States must transfer command of the reconstruction effort to the UN. Even if it retains control over the military side of things, Washington must allow the UN to set up a provisional administration, as depoliticized as possible, with the mandate of (1) meeting the needs of the population; (2) preparing the transition toward a new government that will represent the Iraqi people.

In such a context, the international community led by the UN should begin dialogue with the Iraqi population, the country’s various communities and its political movements to quickly establish a broad basis for consultation. The purpose would be to give rise to an interim Iraqi leadership and a democratic process that would lead to elections and the appointment of a representative government.

It will be an arduous struggle. There are several internal obstacles, not the least of which is the terrible legacy of the current war. External obstacles are also considerable:

It will be necessary to repair the damage caused by unilateral action, and bring European countries, the United States, the international community and the United Nations to a consensus, however minimal.

It will be necessary to keep the region from becoming volatile, and prevent certain neighbouring countries, particularly Turkey and Israel, from taking advantage of the crisis to impose themselves as the region’s "police."

It will be necessary to mobilize considerable resources, both financial and human, without diverting them from other crises in the region and throughout the world.


The challenges are huge and require joint efforts on the part of many actors, governments, international agencies and non-governmental humanitarian organizations, Iraqi political and social movements, the research community, etc. We must ask ourselves the question: can we act as a catalyst, a lever, a facilitator in this context? Keeping our wits about us and, in all modesty, we think that there are some windows of opportunity.

Canada must work to put the UN back in the forefront of the reconstruction effort, and enter into dialogue with the main actors in the region to steer them toward a realistic reconstruction project that respects Iraqi sovereignty. We must also help Iraqis come together and work together to build a consensus for a democratic, peaceful Iraq. Finally, we are able to play a role in the humanitarian crisis via concerted action with multilateral agencies and NGOs. Generally speaking, targeted, rapid-action projects could be contemplated:

To replace basic infrastructures (electricity, thoroughfares, drinking water, security, etc.).

To assist people affected by the war, particularly displaced persons, women and children.

To prepare a transition to democracy.

All of these elements are obviously linked and may have an impact on one another. For instance, we feel that it is very important to include Iraqis in the rebuilding of infrastructures and in emergency humanitarian aid, if the goal is in fact to help Iraqis regain control over their country. In that context, it is important to provide as much help as possible to Iraqi institutions and organizations that can play a role in the short term and can contribute to reconstruction in the long term.

We think that this option is valid and realistic, based on the proliferation of institutions and associations in northern Iraq since that region became independent from Saddam Hussein’s power. The experience there has been underway for the last ten years, and has led to public administration, an elected Parliament, the development of various non-governmental social and education organizations, independent media and political parties. All of these achievements are made less secure by the instability in the country and the region, but could constitute, at least partly, a basis for contemplating the reconstruction of a democratic Iraq. Although the region is mostly Kurdish, a significant part of the population, and therefore the institutions operating in the region, are Iraqi. It is in this perspective that we want to join our efforts, in the short term, to other ongoing interventions in the context of war and reconstruction, and in cooperation with international agencies.

The author is the Director of Alternatives.

[1New challenges

[2What can Canada contribute?

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