For the benefits of reconstruction to take hold in today’s Iraq, it is essential to avoid   oversimplified arguments that merely “fixing” ethno-sectarian tensions will be sufficient to attain the goal of political stability.   A broader approach, which recognizes the country’s current ethno-sectarian polarization as both a symptom and a cause of instability would be a far more appropriate means of addressing the deep-rooted problems faced by Iraqis since 2003.

Nevertheless, the Western media continues to ascribe ongoing violence in the country to only the societal divisions along its ethno-sectarian dimensions.

Official policy has also so far focused primarily on encouraging an overhaul of the Iraqi political system and culture in the post-Saddam era.  The latest Constitution and “de-Baathification” tried to address ethno-sectarian grievances, but resulted mostly in the marginalization of the Iraqi Sunni population.  Top-down attempts at reconciliation have thus overlooked the inextricable implications of years of civil turmoil on Iraqi society.  While the ethnic and sectarian divisions continue to dominate political discourse and dictate party affiliations, there has been a marked failure to address the widespread poverty and the traumas of war, as well as the absence of essential infrastructure, and the dearth of economic opportunities. 

To their credit, successive Iraqi governments have succeeded over the past decade in sharply reducing inflation and containing recurrent spending.  The national economy has benefited from high oil prices, and an increase in production generated an estimated US$80 billion in 2011.  Unfortunately, the global financial crisis led to deterioration in the country’s fiscal balance in 2012 due to a decline in the value of oil.  The economic reliance on oil revenues, and centralization of fiscal decision-making, further highlights the importance of economic diversification as well as the engagement of the private sector beyond ethno-sectarian lines.  

Despite some recent improvements in access to education and health services, there have not been significant welfare gains, especially for the youth of Iraq.  The labor force has not fully recovered from decades of turmoil, and the government has done little to encourage the return of exiles or further training of skilled professionals.  The brain drain effect from the sanctions and the wars further undermines the recovery process.  The Iraqi Red Crescent estimates that as many as 50 percent of Iraq’s doctors and 70 percent of medical specialists have exited the country.  Simultaneously, the professionals that remain in Iraq face daunting challenges. The demand for electricity, water and sanitation exceeds the country’s unreliable supply, which is a major obstacle to economic development.  With Iraqis receiving a daily average of only eight hours of electricity, these shortages impact all aspects of public and private life.  

Perhaps the most critical issue for reform would be a revision in the governance structure to promote national unity.  A formal move away from “consociational” (a power-sharing model a la’ Lebanon) politics toward meritocracy could promote the selection of political representatives based on expertise and professional experience rather than traditional affiliations.

Another way of tackling the underlying causes of instability would be to encourage capacity-building and grassroots initiatives.  On the part of the international community there has been a duplication of efforts, a lack of involvement of beneficiaries, and an underestimation of indigenous capabilities.  A successful example of constructive communal efforts has been the restoration of historic religious sites across the country (as in the case of Al-Askari shrine in Samarra), where different religious denominations are promoting harmony and extensive community ownership of related projects.  The impact of such participatory and community-led reconstruction efforts is twofold, enabling the restoration of damaged infrastructure and the promotion of cooperation and trust between ethno-sectarian groups.

In recent years, newspapers, journals and other publications have allowed for a greater diversity of opinions.   Particularly in this day and age of information dissemination through virtual electronic communications, independent media can serve as a vital instrument for exposing abuses of justices and the airing of minority grievances—all crucial for fostering a national dialogue, reducing radicalization, and voicing demands for change.

In sum, the widespread belief that reconciliation is a pre-requisite for Iraq’s reconstruction diverts attention away from the legitimate socioeconomic concerns of the Iraqi population.   Rather, there is a need to de-emphasize the role of ethno-sectarianism as the main driver of instability, and to focus on the underlying socioeconomic factors that undermine reconstruction efforts in Iraq.  While formidable, these challenges are not insurmountable, and their resolution is essential to Iraq’s future prosperity and security.