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Exiting Iraq Responsibly

An international effort is needed to address enduring economic and political challenges ahead, write Katie White and Steve Bowden.

Manual laborers sit as they wait to be employed in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City, Iraq, last year. As the United States reduces its military presence in Iraq, it should lead a truly international effort to help Iraq build its political institutions and advance the economic well-being of its people. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)
Manual laborers sit as they wait to be employed in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City, Iraq, last year. As the United States reduces its military presence in Iraq, it should lead a truly international effort to help Iraq build its political institutions and advance the economic well-being of its people. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)

President Barack Obama got it right in his Iraq speech last month at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina: It is long past time for U.S. troops to start redeploying, and Iraq’s relatively peaceful provincial elections in January provide a hopeful sign for political progress there. But as he also noted, much work remains undone to improve the lives of millions of Iraqis.

The upshot: As the United States reduces its military presence in Iraq over the next 18 months, it should take advantage of openings for greater political stability in Iraq to lead a truly international effort to help Iraq build its political institutions and advance the economic well-being of its people.

According to the first report on Iraq’s labor force released by the U.N. Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit, 18 percent of Iraq’s labor force remains unemployed. Part of this problem is the result of U.S. reconstruction strategies, which focus on short-term concerns rather than long-term effectiveness and capacity-building, as stated by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Continued U.S. and Iraqi coordination in civilian assistance programs, supplemented by ongoing training programs for local officials, will help to achieve the development of sustainable institutions by cultivating a human infrastructure that can eventually operate independently of U.S. civilians.

Provincial Reconstruction Teams, comprised of U.S. soldiers and civilians working closely with their counterparts from Iraq, provide one example of formal civilian-military cooperation groups in which Americans and Iraqis have worked together successfully. But limited resources have prevented these teams from maximizing their potential. Questions remain about how large these teams will be and where they will operate as U.S. troops continue to redeploy from the country.

Other programs have also worked to improve legal and judicial institutions and increase public awareness of human rights. The United States should work with the United Nations to internationalize these efforts to help fund and create a more effective development force. The many challenges that these initiatives should seek to deal with include a dominant public sector, which currently provides 43 percent of all jobs in Iraq and nearly 60 percent of full-time employment. With better pay and more incentives than private-sector positions, such as regular raises, better human resources, and other perks, most Iraqis opt for state-owned jobs.

Yet only an expansion of the private sector can enable Iraq to manage the influx of 450,000 Iraqis into the labor force expected this year. Furthermore, since oil provides 90 percent of the economy’s revenues, falling oil prices will lead to a decline in the number of public-sector positions, making private-sector growth even more imperative. Over a quarter of Iraq’s young men between the ages of 15 and 29 remain unemployed, which U.S. defense officials and Iraqis believe makes them more likely to engage in terrorist activities and threaten the security gains made over the past year. By increasing job availability, private-sector expansion would therefore contribute to stability in Iraq.

Social services remain inadequate in much of the country as well. Sewage runs onto the streets of al-Anbar. The total amount of available electricity in Iraq barely meets half of the total demand. And the International Committee of the Red Cross recently reported that 40 percent of the country’s population cannot consistently access running water. These circumstances leave little reason to wonder why the majority of Iraqis remain dissatisfied with the availability of basic services, and why many of Iraq’s internally displaced persons have chosen to stay in new locations—which offer better access to services—rather than return home.

One underused mechanism for organizing international support to promote reform and meet the needs of the Iraqi people is the International Compact with Iraq initiated in May 2007 by Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and supported by over 60 nations. The agreement included specific benchmarks and evaluating progress made toward those objectives, offering clear approaches and tangible indicators of achievements that past reconstruction plans have often lacked.

Beyond these economic challenges, political tensions remain between Sunnis and Shias, religious and secular groups, and increasingly (following the political power exchange in northern Iraq) between Arabs and Kurds. Iraq’s leaders also have yet to reach agreements on Kirkuk, the sharing of oil revenues, and how to reintegrate refugees, among other crucial issues. While the International Compact with Iraq does include benchmarks to address some of these dilemmas, the international community, led by the United States, may have to increase its efforts to help Iraq’s political parties achieve reconciliation.

In addition to these major economic and political challenges, the specter of possible increased violence looms, as a recent spate of suicide attacks in the past week demonstrates. U.S. troops are likely to continue leaving Iraq, but an increased and better coordinated international effort to help the country is needed now more than ever.

During their recent trips to Iraq, France’s president and the foreign minister of Germany signaled the strengthening of economic ties between Iraq and its neighbors, indicating a step in the right direction. The rest of the international community should follow suit and pursue its commitment to the building of an autonomous Iraq governed by just rule of law institutions that can join its ranks and improve regional stability.

President Obama’s decision to redeploy 17,000 U.S. forces to Afghanistan and withdraw two U.S. brigades from Iraq by September demonstrates the changing focus of the new administration to the war in Afghanistan. With the planned drawdown of its force capacity, the United States should spearhead a more international approach to follow through with President Obama’s recently stated commitment to strong civilian, diplomatic, and political engagement in order to “help lay a foundation for lasting peace and security” in Iraq.

Katie White and Steve Bowden are interns for Center for American Progress senior fellow Brian Katulis.

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