Time to focus on building Iraq's human capital

Positive news is hard to come by these days in Iraq. US intelligence estimates are increasingly pessimistic, for good reason. Daily attacks on international forces and Iraqi civilians are on the rise; kidnappings and assassinations continue unabated; the insurgency has multiple operational areas (fittingly called "no-go" by the military) in which to plan, regroup, and rearm. The kidnapping of foreigners is causing international organizations and NGOs - the few still operational in Iraq - to withdraw international staff and limit programming.

In turn, the lack of security means that contractors cannot safely leave the protected walls of the international zone. Since only $1 billion of the $18.4 billion allocated for Iraq's reconstruction has been spent, the prospects for accelerating that spending do not look good.

Fledgling Iraqi security forces and international forces that are increasingly reluctant to inflict civilian casualties are up against foreign terrorists fueling a homegrown insurgency. They are fighting to disrupt the democratic transition by attacking interim government officials, key infrastructure, and Iraqi civilians.

Further, the post-cold-war lesson of what happens when a dictatorial regime crumbles - latent ethnic nationalism, often encouraged by leaders trying to grab power, can lead to sectarian violence, secession, or all-out civil war - makes the chaos in Iraq hardly a surprise. The dangerous combination of a weak interim Iraqi government and a growing insurgency opens the very real possibility that a small (or not so small) group of well-funded insurgents could upset the delicate ethnic balance in Iraq.

What can be done? It is time to focus on building human capital by training moderates in the tools of peace. And I've seen evidence firsthand that it can work.

As part of a US Institute of Peace conflict management training team this summer, I worked to promote cooperation and understanding among Iraq's diverse religious and ethnic groups. Goals of a conflict-management conference included strengthening local capacity to peacefully manage the contentious issues facing society and teaching the fundamental skills facilitators need to conduct intergroup dialogues. The trainees were predominantly from Ramadi, Baghdad, Tikrit, Balad, Mosul, and Kirkuk; 17 of the 41 were women, who livened discussions by forcing the more traditional-minded men to listen to progressive perspectives. Male participants immediately dismissed the idea that they would have to be educated on women's rights in order to change the culture of gender inequality. Tempers flared when the men commented, "That is your [women's] problem."

The trainees' sophistication, candor, and enthusiasm were impressive. In similar discussions one year ago, such nuanced understanding of the issues was absent. Participants had informed opinions on the political situation and debated the structure of planned elections. Although the trainees complained about mistakes made by the Coalition Provisional Authority and the dangerous security situation, they were generally forward-looking and wanting to contribute to the new Iraq. This is a marked change from the victim mentality I encountered immediately after the war.

Most striking was their willingness to discuss deeply personal experiences. During one session, a participant admitted to carrying out a revenge killing (a tribal tradition still prevalent in Iraq). Another talked of regular beatings during his 15 years in an Iranian jail after he was captured in the Iran-Iraq War. A former political prisoner, accused of being too religious and a threat to the Iraqi regime, described having his toenails pulled out and nose broken repeatedly. All had harrowing tales, yet instead of retreating from public life, these people are choosing to become activists, risking their lives to work for a peaceful Iraq.

While the number of Iraqi civic activists and officials trained is small (to date the US Institute of Peace has trained approximately 250, both in Washington and Iraq), empowering the right people can have far-reaching consequences.

For example, one trainee, a former lawyer, is working in Mosul to find insurgents and have a dialogue with them and their families about the motivation behind their activities. If it is ideological, he tries to talk them out of it by highlighting the harm it causes Iraq. If it is economic, he attempts to find them temporary jobs to replace the money that would be paid for attacking Iraqi and international forces. Although this is dangerous, the trainee has met with great success because families often feel ashamed of resorting to violence to make a living.

I have seen Iraqis like this man taking great risks to help their country succeed in this democratic endeavor. Thousands of ministry officials risk their lives simply by going to work. One minister, a friend of mine, survived an assassination attempt outside her home. Four of her bodyguards were killed. She was badly shaken up but back to work a few days later. Their resolve is firm because they are tired of violence and committed to building a democratic, peaceful Iraq. And that commitment is worth investing time and resources in. A new generation of Iraqi leaders must be a priority; after all, they are ultimately responsible for breaking the cycle of violence and joblessness and steering Iraq toward stability. Despite the mistakes made by the coalition and the political and economic setbacks and continued violence, Americans must remain hopeful because Iraqis are courageous and unwilling to give up. We should be too.

Sloan Mann is a program officer with the Peace and Stability Operations program at the US Institute of Peace. The views expressed are his own.

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