Iraq must improve governance and economy to meet public demands, says ex-US ambassador

Baghdad's biggest challenge is providing nearly one million young Iraqis with jobs

epaselect epa07904556 Iraqi protesters take part in an anti-Iraq government protest in the al-Tayaran square in central Baghdad, Iraq, 04 October 2019 (issued on 07 October 2019). A wave of unrest and violent protests in Iraq have left at least 100 people dead and thousands injured.  EPA/MURTAJA LATEEF
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Iraq must embrace capitalism and fix its economy in order to put an end to anti-government protests, a former US official said.

Douglas Silliman, former US ambassador to Iraq, said Baghdad’s biggest risk is that nearly one million young Iraqis are unable to find work.

"Unless the government makes it easier for Iraqis to open their own businesses, they will have no place to find jobs inside of Iraq," Mr Silliman, who served in Iraq for two and half years, told The National during a visit to Abu Dhabi.

“This will increase poverty and put pressure on society."

Protests in the country will continue if the government fails to provide water and electricity to the public, he said.

Mr Silliman said Iraqis were lacking a sense of encouragement, as the government was blocking entrepreneurship through corruption, tough regulations and centralised economic decision-making.

“That will have to change gradually before Iraqis can begin to have pride in their own country and are successful,” he said.

For more than a week Iraq has been rocked by anti-government protests that killed at least 110 people and left more than 6,000 wounded in the capital and the south, since security forces began their crackdown on demonstrators.

The recent unrest has shattered nearly two years of relative stability in the country since the defeat of ISIS in 2017.

Iraq suffered for decades under the rule of former dictator Saddam Hussein and UN sanctions, before the 2003 US-led invasion started years of civil war.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government has sought to address the grievances of protesters, who are demanding the removal of the government and a political class they view as corrupt.

Although Iraq had its calmest night on Wednesday, public anger remains.

Economic pressure, slow growth rates and a young population have put a toll on ordinary citizens.

Iraq lacks the infrastructure, governance and private sector to meet the needs of its population.

Mr Silliman expressed concerns at the government’s lack of attention towards the needs of the south.

“Very few people, including the government in Baghdad, are focused on the social and political risks of a population that is growing quite quickly,” he said.

Iraq has an educated population “that has nowhere to use that education".

In 2018 the Iraqi population crossed 40 million. About two thirds of them were born after 1990 and about half of those born after the 2003 invasion, Mr Silliman said.

“Between now and 2020 there will be about 850,000 young Iraqis graduating from secondary school or university every year who expect to be employed,” he said.

What is most important is creating an Iraqi identity and a sense of belonging, the former ambassador urged.

Mr Silliman said the former regime of Saddam Hussein created an identity that purportedly sought to improve the equality of men and women – but the price was high.

“It brought people from different ethnic groups and empowered them in a way that is not happening now,” he said.

“The cost of that was the repression of the Baath regime.”

Iraqis must begin to find a different sense of patriotism, he said, to deter foreign powers from pursuing their own agendas in the country.

If Iraq is to ever be an independent state, which Mr Silliman thinks is possible, it must also diversify its economy and strengthen state institutions.

“It’s important for Iraqis who care the future of Iraq, and especially for those in charge of government policies, to help and empower young Iraqis to change the way the economy runs,” he said.