On April 4, 2010, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a conversation on post-election Iraq with Christopher R. Hill, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Shadi Hamid, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, began the discussion by posing questions to Ambassador Hill regarding the formation of a government coalition and the spillover effects to expect for both Iraq and the region. The discussion, which was followed by a question and answer session, was attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic, and media communities.
Ambassador Hill began with his general impressions, pointing out that the elections were conducted under a relatively calm atmosphere with minimal disruption. Iraqis braved security threats and went to the polls in large numbers resulting in a 62 percent voter turnout. One surprising result was the strong performance of the Sadrists (a movement led by Iraqi nationalist cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr), who won significantly more seats than the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (another Shia-based party which had previously held sway). Moreover, many Sunni Arabs, who make up about 15 to 20 percent of the Iraqi population and who had boycotted the election in 2005, interestingly voted in large numbers for Iraqiyya (a party led by former interim prime minister of Iraq Ayad Allawi who is of Shia background but which also includes political figures from Sunni backgrounds). Meanwhile, secularist parties appear to have done better than sectarian ones. Now, Hill noted, still fragile Iraqi institutions – the police, the army, the presidency, the parliament, and the courts – are being put to the test in the aftermath of the elections. However, despite the many challenges facing the country, Ambassador Hill’s tone was optimistic.
Within the framework of the 2008 security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, the Ambassador explained that all combat operations will cease by August 31, 2010, with troop totals reduced to 50,000. The exclusive mission of the remaining troops will be to “advise and assist” the Iraqi army. Ambassador Hill recognized that while there are risks involved in the full implementation of the security agreement, “the strategic gain greatly exceeds the tactical risks involved.”
Hamid asked Ambassador Hill how, in light of the elections, he would respond to Arabs who continue to hold the war as a major grievance against the United States, particularly regarding the loss of innocent civilian life. The Ambassador responded by saying that “it has been an extremely painful process,” but the key issue is what to do now and the need to focus on restoring Iraq’s sovereignty. He emphasized that while he does not want to “relitigate 2003,” he believed the United States had a certain moral responsibility to ensure the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. He went on to note positive progress on the ground: the Iraqi government has been able to seal contracts with 12 major companies, which will enable Iraq to exploit some 10 million barrels of oil per day for reconstruction and development.
Ambassador Hill advocated increased engagement between Iraq and its Arab neighbors. He also lauded the evolving relationship between Iraq and Turkey and stressed that Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Iran, need to respect Iraqi sovereignty.
In the question and answer session, one audience member asked whether Iraq’s democracy might have a spillover effect in the Arab world and, if so, whether Arab regimes, apprehensive about their own stability, would interfere to derail Iraq’s progress. Ambassador Hill stressed that countries in the Middle East should feel invested in the democratic future of Iraq rather than feel threatened by it. He cautioned, though, that Iraq’s role as a model for the region is limited due to its unique political history.
Another audience member asked what is being done to improve the Iraqi academic institutions to empower students to make meaningful contributions to the local economy. Ambassador Hill agreed that the Iraq’s education system needs to be rebuilt and expressed confidence that there are sufficient funds to fulfill that goal. He cited partnerships between American and Iraqi universities, some of which involve exchange programs, as a critical part of efforts to improve the education system.
When asked to explain the widespread feelings of trauma and pessimism among ordinary Iraqis as a result of the war, Ambassador Hill emphasized that while he is aware of the degree of distress among Iraqis, he is confident that, with time and progress on the ground, those feelings will be gradually replaced by optimism. He cited his experience in Kosovo, where there was similar skepticism initially and acknowledged that “optimism is not the first thing that springs out of people.” He concluded by saying that “those of us who go to these conflict situations [have] an obligation to give these people a sense of hope.”