The terrorist group Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), on April 22, issued a stern warning to Iraqi Sunnis, who account for 25 per cent of the country’s 30 million people, not to take part in the parliamentary elections, for “the voting centres and those within them will be targets of our swords”, the group threatened. That fell on deaf ears last Saturday as voters went to the polls, dismissing the threat as the witless posturing of a has-been — a has-been about to be relegated to a footnote in history books.
The election results were not themselves without a surprise or two. Moqtada Al Sadr’s bloc, a nationalist grouping that has long since distanced itself from Iran, emerged as the front-runner, gaining 54 of the 329 parliamentary seats, effectively enabling it to choose the country’s next prime minster.
This was followed by Hadi Al Ameri’s bloc, comprising the Popular Mobilisation Units, widely recognised as being instrumental in extending Iran’s influence in the country, which took 47 seats. And the coalition led by Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, who has gone to great lengths throughout his tenure to cool sectarian tensions in the country, came third with 42 seats — a surprising turn of events, given the fact that he had entered the campaign with a forecast to win by a landslide.
Which bloc now has how many seats in the House may be significant, in order for that bloc to project its power profile and promote its political agenda. But more significant than the numbers will be the daunting task of how legislators meet the challenges facing a country shattered by war — a country still plagued by divisive sectarianism, a dearth of job opportunities, a weak civil society, a stagnant economy, crumbling infrastructure, poor government services and, above all, corruption.
The challenges facing Iraq are daunting and only a competent government of national unity can meet them.
At last February’s International Conference for the Reconstruction of Iraq, held in Kuwait, Al Abadi had said his country needed a staggering $88 billion (Dh323.66 billion) to recover from the ravages of the war it had waged against Daesh. But when you look at the facts on the ground, the figure is not really that staggering at all.
Mosul alone, the second largest city in the country, had 20,000 homes destroyed. Mosul, once a thriving metropolis with an ethnically and religiously diverse population of roughly two million, home to the University of Mosul and its Medical College, is now a pile of rubble, flattened expanses of street after street lined with crumpled buildings, heaps of smashed cars, collapsed walls all bearing resemblance to an uninhabitable wasteland.
But the problem goes beyond building Iraq’s cities.
We speak of how soldiers come back home from war saddled with post-traumatic stress disorder. But experiencing violence — especially inter-communal violence — creates traumas and wounds for civilians as well, that outlast wars, that take decades to work through, that can shape individual perceptions in ways that cannot be identified, or easily treated.
Rebuilding a wounded society, whose members had lunged at each other tooth and nail in a costly, blood-soaked conflict is a more daunting task than rebuilding destroyed infrastructure and ruined cities. In short, the psychological dislocations wrought by Iraq’s many wars since 2003 have left their mark not just on institutions but on attitudes as well.
The question is this: Will Iraqi leaders, along with an enlightened public discourse in the media, inspire social cohesion, and through it national unity? Economic prosperity is all well and good, but prosperity is but a subsystem of a social system, dynamically correlated to every other subsystem in communal life.
The idea that economic prosperity is at the core of human struggle is certainly tempting, but it misses virtually all of the subtlety and depth of human thinking.
If the new government in Iraq — whose formation will be months in the making — can persuade Iraqis to leave their sectarian, ethnic and tribal preferences at the door and endow their “Iraqiness” with some real meaning and purpose, it will inspire them to dream big in the way they had in those long-lost days, when the country was the locus of a pluralistic, multicultural commonwealth — a condition that modern-day Iraqis are heirs to.
This is Iraq’s Hobson’s choice. Take it or be left by the wayside in the global dialogue of cultures.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of ‘The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile’.