At the beginning of a 90-minute presentation on Iraq and Canada’s role in rebuilding the violence-ridden country, ambassador John Holmes suddenly dropped down, disappearing behind the solid wooden lectern.

Maybe he’d dropped something. Maybe he was getting a bottle of water.

Moments later, he popped up.

“Sorry,” he quipped. “Thought I heard an American convoy going by.”

It was a light-hearted introduction to an otherwise sober topic: after all, it was only three days ago that American troops travelling in a convoy in Baghdad’s supposedly safe Green Zone opened fire on a car carrying four Canadians, including Canada’s acting ambassador. The hood and windshield of the vehicle were damaged in the attack, but no one was injured.

Exactly why the incident happened is currently under investigation, but Holmes – who was in Montreal at the time of the attack – isn’t surprised it happened. It’s a very dangerous place; troops are constantly being shot at and are the targets of roadside bombs and suicide bombers.

“It’s not surprising there are itchy trigger fingers and nervous soldiers out there,” he said following his presentation at Laurier’s Maureen Forrester Recital Hall.

Holmes, who is also ambassador to Jordan and lives with his family in that kingdom, became ambassador to Iraq in 2005.

A McGill graduate and lawyer by training, Holmes joined the foreign service in 1982 and has served in Ghana, Barbados, the Privy Council Office, at the United Nations in New York, and from 2002 to 2003 was director of the United Nations’ human rights and economic law division.

Holmes told the roughly 100 people in attendance that the first reason Canadians put themselves in jeopardy in Iraq is that “we recognize that what happens in Iraq is of interest to Canada.”

Iraq, he said, “is becoming a base for terrorist groups. There are literally hundreds of groups operating there,” but the threat is not confined to Iraq.

Jordanians, for example, believed until last December that terrorist attacks were something that happened elsewhere. Then three hotels were blown up in Amman, the capital.

“What shocked them (Jordanians) was that suicide bombers deliberately chose Muslims as targets,” Holmes said, including a wedding, where dancing children were part of the target.

“It was a wake-up call for many Jordanians,” he said. Terrorism isn’t just somebody else’s problem: “It is their problem now. They understand that.”

Canada has no troops on the ground in Iraq, but it does have a small diplomatic corps (housed with the British until a new Canadian embassy is built) which meets with governmental and non-governmental groups and individuals. As part of a $300 million commitment, Canada also trains Iraqi police at a facility in Jordan. Journalists are also being trained and are adapting a code of conduct for themselves.

Canada is promoting good governance, education and private sector development in Iraq, Holmes said.

“It’s in our longer-term interest to have a prosperous and free Iraq.” The country, which is currently mired in poverty and violence, could have a solid future. It is estimated that if the oil industry was fully refurbished, it could produce revenues equivalent to a per capita income of US $30,000, and there is more oil yet to be discovered. Iraqis would also love to buy more Canadian products, said Holmes, mentioning wheat and lentils in particular.

“But the key is security,” he said. It is not safe to visit Iraq right now, “so building the market potential will take time.”

There are, he said, two different types of groups that make Iraq unsafe. Roughly speaking there are the (often non-Iraqi) insurgents and terrorists, versus what could be called the resistance, which is primarily comprised of Iraqis, “many of whom are ex-Baathists and Sunnis who feel completely disaffected.

“The resistance, some people argue, is legitimate,” Holmes said. “They are opposed to any foreign troops in Iraq.”

But both groups conduct suicide attacks and roadside bombings, both conduct attacks on Iraq’s infrastructure (including oil production facilities) and “there are the terrible kidnappings that take place,” including the recent kidnapping of a Canadian, which is ongoing and which Holmes declined to discuss.

“Security is improving in many areas,” he said. “We are told that in many provinces, maybe 13 of 18, security has improved. But (because he is not free to travel around the countryside) I have no way of knowing. The area I do know is Baghdad,” and seeing the continuing violence there “it’s hard to be optimistic” about the rest of the country.

“Eventually, the progress that has to be made will come from Iraqis themselves,” and that progress is being made.

“What we have now is a new Iraq,” he said. “The old Iraq ended with the adoption of the new constitution. Building the new Iraq is not finished. There is no national consensus in Iraq yet.

“A sizeable minority, largely but not exclusively Sunni, is not buying into it,” he said. “Many Kurds see this (constitution with shared powers) as a necessary stepping stone to something else. Some Shia see this (a significant role in the new government) as their right...because they are the majority (of the population).

“Everybody is saying, ‘We need a government of national reconciliation’. But they can’t agree on how it should proceed.”

A conference on national reconciliation was held in Cairo recently, and it was surprisingly successful. Another conference will likely be held in Iraq this spring. “I remain always optimistic about things,” Holmes said.

The big question hanging over everything is when and how foreign troops will leave.
“There could be a full-scale civil war” if all the troops left, Holmes said, and despite rhetoric to the contrary, “an orderly, phased withdrawal is what everybody is looking for. But they want a timetable and a commitment to a date.”

Holmes’ talk was sponsored by the Centre for International Governance Innovation, the Centre for Global Relations, Governance and Policy at Laurier, and the Canadian Institute for International Affairs.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.