Alistair Burt says 'no hands from outside' can fix Iraq's political problems

Country recently appointed a new government but many don't expect change

Men clad in Iraqi flags stand over Tahrir square during anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad. AFP
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Alistair Burt, a former Middle East minister, has said Iraq's leaders must take on the country's challenges and not simply hope that partners like the UK can play a greater role in the reconstruction of the state.

Almost 20 years after British troops took part in a coalition invasion of Iraq, Mr Burt said he is routinely asked why the UK government chooses to take a backseat role in the rebuilding of the nation and establishment of a post-Saddam democratic system. “I think it's perfectly clear now that the issue of the determination of the future of governance in Iraq will be quite properly in the hands of the Iraqi people and those who are elected and guiding them,” he said.

“It won't be in the hands of anyone from outside.”

The British Army maintains a presence in the country but this is solely in training capacity aimed at equipping local forces with the skills needed to prevent a resurgence of Isis.

In recent years and months Iraq has been blighted by a litany of issues including systemic corruption, high unemployment, poverty, mass protests and political crises.

Iraq’s parliament last month approved a new government set up by Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani, ending more than a year of deadlock. But challenges remain and despite Baghdad earning record oil income due to high crude prices, the country’s 42 million citizens live with many unknowns.

Mr Burt, who served as Middle East minister in the UK’s Foreign Office and international development minister from 2017 to 2019, pushed back against voices urging Britain to do more to alleviate Iraq's social and political problems.

Speaking at the Iraq Initiative conference at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, he argued the theme of “it’s all our fault” and said it would not be for Britain’s place to play a more central role.

US troops in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. AFP

He pointed to the series of demonstrations and civil disobedience that sprung up in 2019 in protest against corruption, political sectarianism, interventionism and lack of jobs. Mr Burt said the voices of the Iraqi people must be heard by the elite in Baghdad if the country is to move towards a promising future.

He suggested the UK’s role in Iraq today consists largely of encouraging elected officials to engage with Iraqis and listen to their concerns.

“Unless those voices are listened to, then the direction of governments will not be where Iraq needs to be and not be where Iraq will be secure,” he said. “[They are] the voices that need to be heard by government and that's what we’re doing.”

Jennifer Gavito, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs at the US Department of State, struck a similar tone to Mr Burt. She told the audience that although the US intends to play a role in the reconstruction of post-war Iraq for years to come, it cannot provide the political will for change so many Iraqis are crying out for.

The US mission in Iraq formally concluded in December 2021.

On the question of how Iraq’s problems can be addressed, she said “the answer lies with the Iraqis not with a imposed solution”.

“We have invested heavily in providing the Iraqi security forces with the training needed in order to take on the mantle of security for its own country,” she said. “Political will is something that as Alastiar notes, we can't provide.”

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Updated: November 15, 2022, 7:12 AM