War-ravaged Iraq desperately needs $100 billion, but only a fool would give its government the money, writes Struan Stevenson.
Plans for the wholesale reconstruction of Iraq are being trumpeted by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his government cronies. Abadi told the World Economic Forum in Davos in January that his country required more than $100 billion to rebuild its shattered infrastructure.
At the international conference in Kuwait on 14 February, the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister claimed that 76 countries had pledged more than $3bn. Some of the biggest potential donors included Turkey, who offered $5bn, the US who say they will pay $3bn, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait who have promised $1.5bn each, Qatar who are offering $0.5bn and the EU, which seems prepared to pay something approaching $0.5bn. So billions are already in the promissory pipeline, although the war-ravaged country will require a lot more than this to get back on its feet.
The list of countries willing to invest in rebuilding Abadi’s beleaguered nation is notable for the stark absence of Iraq’s closest neighbour Iran. Indeed Iran is primarily responsible for Iraq’s destruction. The theocratic Iranian regime has systematically contrived to demolish Iraq’s key state institutions. The Iranian regime has also engineered the supplanting of the Iraqi army with a network of Shia militias, hell-bent on the ethnic cleansing of Iraq’s Sunni population. The vacuum created by this orgy of destruction has been rapidly filled by the theocratic dictatorship, which now has a stranglehold over its neighbour and regards Abadi as its malleable puppet.
Instead of helping to rebuild its ravaged neighbour, financial support from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s regime has been directed towards Iraqi religious organisations, fomenting sectarian division by stirring up hatred and violence against Iraq’s Sunnis. Major Iranian funding has also gone to the so-called Popular Mobilisation Forces, controlled and directed by General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). He is officially designated a terrorist by the US and is the subject of both EU and UN sanctions.
Soleimani, who reports directly to Khamenei, has ruthlessly shaped this brutal Shia force into a mirror image of Hezbollah in Lebanon, designed to perform similar tasks. By this means the Iranian regime has opened a direct conduit through Iraq to Syria, channeling vast numbers of military personnel and resources to prop up Bashar al-Assad and stoke the bloody civil war that has raged for seven years and killed an estimated 500,000 Syrians. Over half of the population is displaced and homeless inside and outside Syria.
Iraq is not a poor country. It boasts the world’s fifth largest proven oil reserves and its landmass covers a vast ocean of gas. In addition, Iraq is one of the most fertile Middle Eastern countries and it is the only country in the region that has plenty of water, with the two biggest rivers of the Middle East, the Tigris and the Euphrates, flowing through its territory, which is why one of the world’s oldest civilizations was formed on this land. Its problems do not stem from a lack of financial resources, but rather from the many afflictions from which it suffers. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a venally corrupt political class has systematically pillaged public revenues. The fall in oil profits and the deteriorating security situation that saw Isis seize control of almost one third of Iraq’s geographical territory and many of its major cities, created further chaos. The Iraqi government began defaulting on payments to its civil servants and abandoning pledges to build roads, bridges and power stations.
The country’s infrastructure is crumbling and major cities like Baghdad often have less than two hours of electricity supply daily. On-going power cuts leave Iraqis boiling with rage. There have also been many scandals involving inflated tenders for weapons and civic projects. Money for roads and power stations has simply vanished. Corruption is deep-rooted and endemic. The gravity of the crisis is such that many Iraqis are now wondering where years of oil income worth hundreds of billions of dollars has gone.
Iran has ruthlessly exploited this opportunity to seize effective control of the struggling country, posing as an ally of the West in ousting Isis from cities like Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul, reducing these predominantly Sunni conurbations to crumbling ruins in the process. Some 800,000 people have been rendered homeless from Mosul alone, millions when you count the refugees who fled from Ramadi and Fallujah. Thousands of innocent civilians have been killed and tens of thousands injured in a genocidal campaign to ethnically cleanse the Sunni population of Iraq, orchestrated and funded by the Iranian regime. Now sprawling refugee camps and flimsy canvas tents provide a home to families who have lost everything.
Abadi is right when he says that Iraq needs at least $100bn to rebuild its shattered infrastructure, but even those countries that have promised to contribute may wish to think again. Although Isis has been driven from Iraq, terrorism has not been eliminated. Iraq is still a very dangerous place. Foreign meddling in Iraq, particularly by Iran, is on the increase and corruption is rampant. Great chunks of foreign aid may simply disappear into the same black hole as Iraq’s prolific oil wealth, with some of it even finding its way to Tehran.
Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish statesman, famously said: “Among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot long exist.” After 15 years of venal corruption, the concept of liberty has become almost as rare to Iraqis as the concept of peace. Corruption has brought Iraq to its knees and only a major onslaught against the criminal political classes will have any chance of restoring order. Countries wishing to contribute to the reconstruction of Iraq should do so only on the guarantee of good governance. They must insist on the ousting of the IRGC and its Popular Mobilisation Forces and the restoration of the Iraqi army and state institutions. Iraq was once a great nation and could be again if it frees itself from the death-grip of the Iranian mullahs. Until that day, investing in Iraq would be a fool’s errand.
Struan Stevenson is president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA) and a former Scottish MEP