Iraq no longer dominates the front pages as the war in Afghanistan becomes the preoccupying foreign policy concern of governments in Ottawa and Washington. But it is still a story filled with drama and violence, a society in a difficult transition from authoritarianism to a more representative form of government.  Some now worry that western governments, the US in particular, will neglect Iraq and leave it to remain a source of instability. For sure, the Iraqi security forces are still not capable of maintaining law and order at home, and defending Iraq from external threats, including violent extremists. The political system remains somewhat unpredictable, as political alliances change with the seasons.  The elections scheduled for January 2010 hold many uncertainties, from the type of electoral law to whether Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki will be re-elected.

More profoundly, Iraqi society has not healed from the many traumas inflicted upon it. More than two million Iraqis have fled sectarian violence and political assassinations over the past six years. Many live as refugees or migrants with uncertain status in neighboring countries. A startling portion of Iraq's educated professionals and middle class now live outside the country. Those who fled the American invasion and the chaos that followed only add to the ranks of emigré Iraqis who fled earlier periods of political turmoil under Saddam Hussein. True reconciliation that might facilitate the return of the ousted elite and allow social groups to live together in peace has not occurred, and Iraq's current leadership seems strangely uninterested in this critical national task.

Yet these daunting challenges do not tell the entire story. Slowly, Iraq's Shia majority is adapting to being in power, and new political alignments suggest that strict sectarianism is giving way to cross-sectarian coalitions. Iraq's new politicians, many of whom had not been in public life before 2003, are learning parliamentary procedures and budgetary processes. They have a long way to go in terms of being responsive to their constituents, and there are serious constitutional issues about natural resources and internal boundaries that have not been resolved. But think of South Korea or Taiwan, Province of China, less than a decade after establishing democracy — Iraq may not be doing that badly.

These issues were the focus of several days of discussion in Ottawa in October with visiting Iraqis who represent diverse perspectives on the Iraqi scene. Two think tanks — the Centre for International Governance Innovation of Waterloo and the Stimson Center of Washington, DC — collaborated to organize the meeting, one of a series about the new realities of Iraq. In Ottawa, federalism and governance were the main themes of one workshop, where Canadian and American experts in federalism exchanged views with Iraqi politicians, scholars and journalists. The Iraqis were fascinated by the Canadian experience and the referenda over Quebec's status, as the relationship between Quebec and Canada finds a powerful parallel in the relationship between the Kurdish region, now constituted as the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government, and Baghdad. Arab Iraq, equivalent to Anglo Canada, has diverse views about whether other provinces should exercise their right to form regions, as the Kurds did, and as is permitted in the Iraqi Constitution of 2005. These issues touch on identity politics, on relations with neighbouring groups, and the question of distributing Iraq's vast oil income.

The Ottawa meeting also reflected on trends in US-Iraq relations. With the near certainty that most if not all American troops will be out of Iraq by 2012, many Iraqis are quite anxious about what will happen, and there is pressure on the Obama administration to revisit its decision in the event that the Iraqi forces are not ready to take responsibility for security, which all agree is the sine qua non for political, economic and social development.  But security has dominated the relationship too much, and there was useful discussion about opportunities to deepen civilian cooperation in fields such as education, health and science and technology.

These are issues that lend themselves to international engagement — Canada can play an important role in helping Iraq develop the human capital and the professional networks to become a stable and productive country in the Middle East.  Iraq has great potential to be an important multicultural bridge, between Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and other minorities. As it reinvents itself, Canada and the United States should look for ways to be important partners.


Ellen Laipson is the president and CEO of the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.
Mokhtar Lamani is a senior visiting fellow at CIGI in Waterloo, Ontario, and former ambassador, special representative and mediator in Iraq.

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.