An Open Letter to Iraq’s Next Prime Minister, Whoever He Might Be


Congratulations on your selection as prime minister. Or condolences, depending on how you look at it. As in an earlier era in a different land, Iraq is in both its best of times and worst of times. As I’ve repeatedly written, what Iraq and its people have done in holding together through the crisis presented by the self-proclaimed Islamic State is nothing short of amazing. And that Iraq’s currency remained stable and oil production increased during this period are also incredible accomplishments. Baghdad is now enjoying a renaissance made possible by greatly improved security and the passing of sectarianism. This is a great credit to your country.

And yet Iraq is still mired in other crises. What inadequate infrastructure you have is in deep need of repair. You have armed forces only loosely connected to the government roaming the country. There is still a significant Islamic State presence in the ethnically mixed areas between Baghdad, Mosul, and Irbil.  And in these same mixed areas, the fabric of society has been rent, with both the overthrow of the Baath regime and then the influx of jihadists disrupting what was already a delicate balance. And finally, for the long term, you need to unlock the vast potential of Iraq’s under-utilized human capital.

To be blunt, you have — in the words of the song — a long way to go, and a short time to get there. I hope you will accept this letter in the spirit in which it is intended, as a laundry list from a friendly critic, an outsider who understands at least something about Iraq, and whose perspective allows him to see what Iraq might one day be.


Let us start with infrastructure. Most of it is a mess. If you don’t believe me, ask the Basra protesters.  Iraq has very serious problems with two sectors in particular — water and power. This is not to say that there are not very serious problems with other sectors, but water and power have a certain base urgency. Absent water and power, modern life grinds to a halt.

Water management has quickly floated to the top (pun intended), as a first-tier issue in Iraq. Five years ago, water probably would not have made a top five issues list. But a perfect storm of issues surrounding the water sector has made this an urgent priority. First, Iraq is in drought. Whether cyclical or brought on by climate change can be debated, but the lack of rainfall cannot. Second, your upstream neighbors, Turkey and Iran, have been building dams at a prodigious rate, severely diminishing the amount of water flowing downstream in the Tigris and Euphrates. Third, Iraq’s water infrastructure is mostly primitive, and that primitive infrastructure — particularly in the north — has suffered from either passive neglect, or active abuse. In short, Iraq not only has less water than it used to, but it does not manage the water that it does have particularly well.

Power, on the other hand, has been a recurring issue. While Iraq has actually done quite well in increasing both power generation and distribution, it has lagged behind the increase in demand. Iraq produces enough power today to care quite well for the needs of Iraq’s (estimated) 23 million citizens when the Saddam regime fell in 2003. However, it is falling quite short of the needs of the (estimated) 38 million citizens in Iraq today. While the invasion of Daesh did disrupt many plans for improvement of the grid, it is difficult to assign sole responsibility there. The power system is incredibly complex, with shortfalls at every level. Generation is an issue, as is fuel for generation in particular. This lack of fuel could be significantly ameliorated, if not solved, by capture of natural gas generated as a byproduct of oil production, almost all of which is currently being flared — burned and destroyed without any return.  The recent announcement of a significant contract to begin gas capture is a welcome sign, but these efforts need to be expanded and reinforced. But fuel to drive generation is just one small piece.  The distribution system is antiquated,  significant amounts of power are diverted into unmetered lines, and many to most Iraqis never pay their power bills at all. There has been no serious exploration of renewables, though the country’s sun and wind lend themselves to such.

These are two the two most urgently deficient sectors, but I could do a similar diagnosis of almost every aspect of Iraq’s infrastructure — banking, health care, or telecommunications. The bad news is that there is almost no sector in which serious investment and reform are not required.

The good news is that, unlike the last government, which struggled to keep Iraq’s budget balanced, your government will have funds to start to remedy these shortcomings. The Kuwait Conference in February of this year netted Iraq $30 billion in sovereign loan guarantees and other funding — essentially a line of credit funded by your neighbors. In addition, the 2018 budget surplus — thanks to higher than expected oil revenues — is estimated to be at least $15 billion, if not closer to $20 billion.  Iraq has the resources to at least start a serious rebuilding effort, and capable firms are available to work on these projects.  When Iraq lacks capacity, it should engage international partners. In fact, there may be a grand bargain available with Turkey to the north, engaging capable Turkish construction firms on water projects for much-needed hard currency, while more water is released over Turkish dams.

Let us speak candidly. In the past, monies spent on infrastructure projects have been handicapped by large scale corruption (largely administered by the political parties) to the point that few of the projects materialized. This simply cannot happen again. The Kuwait Conference donors will not let it happen with their funds — no donor country will disperse funds to Iraq without some type of international guarantor to provide oversight. And with regard to your oil surpluses, I would expect your people to storm the barricades if more than the smallest of percentages is lost to corruption.

Compounding the problem is the choking maze of bureaucratic hurdles that is seizing up almost every effort to get an investment off the ground, a project through to completion or a business to profit enough to reinvest in the country and expand its employee base. Some small progress has been made, but the problem remains Herculean. Until you put your foot down and streamline sensible regulations that allow both local and foreign companies to work, you are essentially allowing mid-level bureaucrats to waterboard the golden goose.

You need to show progress on infrastructure quickly. You could do worse than to task each of your ministries to bring forward key projects (not the usual recycling of “investment projects” as seen in Kuwait) targeted at providing immediate relief and improvement of services to your citizens. And the more transparency you can provide on these projects, the more support you will receive from your populace.

The Popular Mobilization Units

The Hashd, or the Popular Mobilization Units, have played a unique role in Iraqi society. In the wake of the 2014 collapse of the Iraqi Army, they are widely credited — not without merit — in having blunted the push of the Islamic State to Baghdad, and then playing a significant role in Iraq’s liberation. The sacrifices of those who served — and in many cases died — to preserve Iraq cannot be forgotten.

However, it remains a stubborn fact that the Hashd represent an armed force not entirely responsive to the Iraqi government, but instead to political parties and religious institutions. Further, a number of these parties have significant ties with Tehran, leading to the painting of the entire Hashd with a broad brush as “Iranian proxies.” So the Hashd currently present two problems — a challenge to the state monopoly on the legitimate use of armed force, and a perception (and to some extent, reality) problem that your country is occupied by Iranian proxies.

The Hashd problem can be solved in several ways, but at the end of the day, all the armed forces in the country must report to you, preferably through your Ministers of Defense and Interior (though the Counter Terrorism Service already has a different reporting chain). The Hashd could be integrated into the Defense or Interior ministries, simply abolished as a force, or turned into an unarmed state agency (on the model of the United States’ Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Public Administration in the early 20th century). How this happens is an internal Iraqi matter (though I’m sure there are many non-Iraqis willing to provide any technical assistance required). But the end-state of returning the monopoly on armed force to legitimate, totally subservient, state forces is critical to Iraq’s future.

The Northern Areas

While the Islamic State has been fairly decisively ejected from Anbar and greater Mosul, there remains a zone of insecurity in northern Iraq. If one visualizes security “radiating” from the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, and Irbil, the intervening lands of northern Diyala and Sal-al-Din, southeastern Ninewah, and most of Kirkuk provinces remain unsecure. We know that the Islamic State retains a stronghold in the Hamrin mountains on the Kirkuk and Sal-al-Din border, and whether the incidents in the other provinces show the group reorganizing, or simply the banditry of scattered survivors of the Mosul battle, the lack of insecurity felt by Iraqis in these areas is tangible.

The security issue is compounded by the social problems. Almost all the areas listed above are ethnically mixed areas, many of them part of the “disputed territories” between Baghdad and Irbil. The balance and harmony between the Arab Sunnis — the majority in most of these territories — and Iraq’s Kurds, Turkomen, Assyrians (often called Iraqi Christians), Yezidi, and Shabak was never terribly stable, but even that tentative stability was shattered by the rise of Daesh in these areas. The Yezidi, of course, experienced the greatest persecution under Daesh (along with any Shi’a unfortunate enough to encounter Daesh), though the Assyrian Christians also suffered immensely. Then in the wake of Daesh’s fall, Sunni Arab tribes and villages that had allied with ISIS had the tables turned against them, by both other Sunni groups and the minorities.

You have in these areas two deeply interrelated problems. First, Iraq’s citizens need to be protected.  One can debate whether the threat in these areas is a resurgent ISIL or simple lawlessness in their aftermath, but that distinction is doubtless lost on the farmers and villagers who end up as their victims. And second, trust has to be rebuilt between the various ethno-sectarian groups in these areas, as they rebuild their homes, communities, and lives for a post-Daesh future.

There appears to be a common solution to these two problems: Projecting state power into these areas must become a priority. The Iraqi state must absolutely take on the dual challenge of eliminating Daesh and providing the resources — security, infrastructure, administration — for Iraq’s minorities to rebuild.  It is no secret that the United States government is particularly concerned about the Assyrian Christians in this region, but their plight is hardly unique. Your government needs to solve these problems for all Iraq’s citizens in this region, and then the Christians will have their needs met as part of the entire citizenry, and not a special subset.

As an immediate first step, move military power into the region. This is the last Islamic State stronghold, so military power is appropriate. An Army brigade, or two, would not be an irrational response. Reinforce the Army with Ministry of Interior forces. And while I’m a retired Infantry officer and understand the difficulty of clearing a mountainous area like the Hamrin, it needs to be done. I’m sure the new coalition commander, U.S. Lt, Gen. LaCamera, would be happy to provide technical assistance (intelligence, reconnaissance, fire support, logistics, planning) in support of your forces for such an operation.

Human Capital

Iraq’s greatest resource is not her oil, but her people. Your citizens have been through a great deal, and it is now a rare Iraqi who can remember a time when Iraq was at peace and integrated into the world. Iraq’s education system was once the envy of the region — but no longer. You have a great deal of work to do, from entry-level schooling teaching literacy and numeracy, all the way through your graduate schools. Technical training and experience is also an issue.

We see the most tangible example of Iraq’s human capital problem in the Basra oil fields, where the Basrawis protest against the foreign workers. But international oil companies import foreign workers because the local work force does not contain the skills required.

Starting to harness Iraq’s human capital must be a whole of government effort. Your ministers of education and higher education are obviously key players, but your minister of industry also has a critical role on the technical side. Development of human capital must be a common theme. So for example, looping back to the much needed power projects, these contracts should contain a plan to develop a local Iraqi work force to eventually maintain infrastructure build by foreign firms. Iraq needs power in a hurry, so will need to engage foreign firms to get the infrastructure in place. But if Iraq still needs American and German engineers to maintain this infrastructure a decade from now, something has gone terribly wrong. Build the plan to develop human capital into every effort.

Into the Future

Again, congratulations on your selection as Iraq’s prime minister. You have a fascinating four years ahead of you. I have by no means listed all the issues you will have to deal with in the coming years. I could have doubled the size of this letter by addressing issues with the KRI, the need for constitutional reform and a census, negotiating with the United States over exemptions to the Iranian sanctions, and further need for developing federalism with the provinces. And history may bring further crises onto your plate. But progress on the issues listed herein will, I believe, help to push Iraq into a “virtuous cycle,” where improvements in one area begin to make other problems less challenging. I wish you all best as you begin to implement policy as you move into the next year.

All the best,

Douglas A. Ollivant


Douglas Ollivant, a former NSC Director for Iraq during the Bush and Obama administrations, is an ASU Senior Fellow in the Future of War project at New America. He is a managing partner of Mantid International, a strategic consulting firm with offices in Washington, Beirut and Baghdad, and a senior editor at War on the Rocks. Mantid International advises clients working in Federal Iraq.