Amid insurmountable challenges, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is focused on building a political narrative of a victorious and strong Iraq in which its courageous security services defeat a terrorist enemy while achieving national reconciliation. The Mosul offensive, which began in October 2016, was based largely on political considerations as Abadi’s big reform push from August 2015 was running aground and the economy was facing a downturn due to low oil prices. Its conclusion offers Abadi an opportunity to use rhetorical bluster to get through problems he lacks the power and resources to resolve before next year’s parliamentary elections.
Abadi declared victory in Mosul on July 5, and a celebratory military parade followed in Baghdad on July 15 that gave Iraqis a chance to take pride in the armed forces. Other politicians picked up on the narrative of victory. The Shia bloc in parliament called for the day to be declared “Victory Day.” Speaker Salim al-Jabouri, the country’s most important Sunni Arab officeholder, solemnly declared “today victory has become reality, and Daesh [the Islamic State] is gone for good.” This effort to create a new narrative is necessary to get Abadi through the last year of his term. Both internal critics—including Iraqis with legitimate complaints and political rivals cynically exploiting problems—and external allies and donors are placing demands he cannot possibly meet before elections. This is driven by the fact that Abadi faces challenges both in terms of security and economic matters for which the state lacks the institutional capability to address.
A common theme of this narrative is the security service’s professionalism and their good relations with citizens in Mosul and other liberated areas. At his July 25 press conference, Abadi commented that “treatment of citizens and the displaced by the security services of citizens has been dignified and humane. Indeed these forces represented the best possible example of the protection of citizens and displaced, and concern for them.” He has also repeatedly been dismissive of NGO reports on abuses and illegal executions in Mosul, commenting on July 12, “I do not deny that there are some violations of citizens here and there. In every war and confrontation there are violations. But I demand these organizations check their people and their sources… Should we just surrender our country to terrorism? Our heroes are protecting human rights!” His stance reflects the mainstream view within the Iraqi political establishment.
Human Rights Watch, as well as other NGOs, has issued multiple reports noting evidence of executions and abuse of prisoners, which have also become a major part of international media reporting on Mosul. Still, there is no clear pattern of sectarianism, and a substantial but indefinable number of the executions are by local Sunnis taking revenge on fellow Sunnis. Much of the attention on illegal executions is coming from non-credible figures or media outlets that support Sunni insurgency or have worked with the Islamic State in the past. Many executions are in fact often driven by the widespread belief that corruption in the judiciary will allow suspected Islamic State members to buy their freedom and get away. One investigative report by the Telegraph into the only court in northern Iraq trying terror suspects found that torture was routine, death from ill-treatment common, and judicial procedure generally perfunctory. Unlike in Baghdad in 2005 and 2006, Shia militias are not making an effort at sectarian cleansing, but regular security forces are executing suspects instead of turning them over to a judiciary no one trusts.
Although this issue may not be of as much concern within most Iraqi media or have significant internal political impact, field executions create an image issue for Abadi with international actors, and there is no likelihood of him taking serious action. Because Abadi’s dismissal of such NGO reports reflects the mainstream view within the political establishment, it is the only politically viable response available to him. Even were Abadi willing to risk his political future by pushing the issue, orders to arrest and try security personnel might not be carried out, and neither is there a reliable judicial framework for doing so. Still, the controversy over security forces’ actions in areas under government control looms over Abadi.
On the economic front, there is need for reconstruction in liberated towns after the destruction of the Islamic State and the drawn-out operations against it. The government is touting a new reconstruction fund, but it is asking for foreign donations, as Baghdad does not have a single dinar of its own to rebuild war-ravaged areas. For example, of the 100.7 trillion dinars ($86 billion) in total spending listed in the 2017 budget law, about 75 percent is operational expenses and the remainder is capital expenditures. To meet operational expenses, the central government needs over $4.7 billion in revenue per month, and with non-oil revenues modest, the bulk of that needs to come from oil revenues. For June, due to a drop in oil prices, Baghdad brought in short of $4.2 billion. January was the only month this year that brought in enough revenue for capital investment, at $5.0 billion, while other months have been closer to the breakeven point.
Thus, while there has been talk of rebuilding schools in Mosul, there is no room for extra spending in the education budget. For 2017, total Ministry of Education appropriations were 1.46 billion dinars ($1.25 million), and of this over 99 percent was for operational expenses. Of these operational expenses about 85 percent—1.25 billion dinars ($1.07 million)—was employee compensation, always a major item for schools. Barring new sources of outside aid, the amount available for rebuilding is thus near zero, and has been for some time: cities like Ramadi and Fallujah long since liberated remain largely in ruins.
More broadly, the limited economic reforms over the past few years have been insufficient to generate more non-oil revenue. For example, Mosul had been a major industrial center before 2014, and although the Islamic State had turned many of the city’s workshops into bomb factories, this infrastructure could potentially become the basis of economic renewal. Yet these factories are part of a network linked to the Ministry of Industry, which is supposed to finance itself with product sales but in practice has long been subsidized by the government. Under Abadi, the ministry has undergone a consolidation, merging companies producing similar products in order to save costs. Still, the industrial sector remains a burden on the state—the ministry spends over 98 percent of its budget on operational costs, leaving little room for investment upgrades, and is borrowing an additional $300 million annually to pay worker salaries. The reason is simple: of the 33 newly-consolidated companies, only two are profitable, according to the head of the ministry’s planning office. Thus any plan to rebuild the economy requires not only money for training and technology, but also a change in business culture to run factories more efficiently.
The political establishment is already readying for the next national election, likely to be held in April or May of 2018. Abadi has already begun to use Mosul as a rhetorical pivot to argue that this victory came about because his government’s reforms led to a stronger military force and to demand that civilian leaders perform with the same courage as the military leaders he appointed and who liberated Mosul. Rapid reconstruction is not likely, nor is any substantial response to international criticisms regarding the conduct of the war. Rebuilding the country and fully modernizing the security and judicial branches of state will be the work of many years to come.
Kirk H. Sowell is a political risk analyst and the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, a biweekly newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @UticaRisk.