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Tom Nicholls: Iraq making progress, says deputy prime minister

Iraqi politics are in a mess and the handling of the oil industry has been a disaster, but there are reasons for optimism, says deputy prime minister Barham Salih By Tom Nicholls, journalist “Success is possible in Iraq – difficult, but possible,” Barham Salih, Iraq’s deputy prime minister, said in London this week. “Failure is not an option”: it would be catastrophic for Iraqis, the Middle East and the world. “We must succeed and we will succeed.” Tempering the fighting talk, Salih — speaking at international affairs think-tank Chatham House — gave a brutally honest assessment of Iraq’s situation: its embryonic democracy is “messy, inefficient” and still feeling its way; the handling of the oil industry has been “no less than a disaster”; politicians remain divided on important issues, such as the framework for oil and gas investments; the country is “far” from realising its economic potential; confidence in coalition troops is higher in some areas of Baghdad than in Iraqi troops; and Iraq will need to rely on foreign soldiers, unpopular though their presence on the ground may be, for a long time. However, Salih prefers to see the glass half-full than half-empty: Iraq’s achievements – and failings – have to be seen in the light of the terrorism that blights the country. “Politics is breaking out in Iraq, but in the context of this very tough terrorist environment.” The UK was traumatised by terrorist attacks in London on 7 July 2005, he said: Iraq faces such atrocities almost on a daily basis.

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Barham Salih: a realist, but an optimist

In addition, while the government still has a mountain to climb, there are reasons for optimism. In the last six months, security has improved significantly, he said. This is partly because of increases in troop numbers: Iraqi police and military personnel now number around 300,000 and there are plans for the addition of further divisions next year. The government has also taken a tougher line against militias. However, the most significant factor in improving security has been a change in the public attitude towards Al Qaida, said Salih: Iraqis perceive terrorist factions as a “serious threat to them … People have come to realise that Al Qaida cannot offer solutions.” There have also been improvements in the economy and the country’s political framework, Salih claimed. Economic growth has reached 6% and inflation has halved to around 16% since the start of the year. Although politicians are taking time to become accustomed to the accountability democracy demands, an “overwhelming majority” recognises that “there is no way we can go back to the old order”. Fundamental to prosperity is the establishment of an oil law. The central government agreed on a draft law in February, with control and revenue from Iraq’s oil reserves to be shared among Baghdad and the provinces. However, it has since been stalled by political disagreements. This has had adverse economic consequences, given oil’s enormous potential in Iraq. According to Salih, the country has the potential to be producing 6m barrels a day (b/d) within three or four years, assuming the government is able to attract sufficient investment. But it is far below that level at present, producing just 2.2m b/d in September and exporting 1.7m b/d. “We are still falling very, very short of the potential of Iraq in terms of production and export levels,” he said. “Every time the oil prices goes up a dollar, I feel the pain.” Finalising the oil law would be a big step towards that aim. Yet Salih prefers to see the delay in a positive light: it means care is being taken to achieve a consensus on how to handle the economic sector that dominates Iraq’s economy. “I think most of the elements of the oil law are in place and we can probably can muster a political majority soon.” But the oil law is about “national unity” and forcing legislation through with a 51% vote would be a mistake, he says. “We have to have broad acceptance.” An area of acute controversy is the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) approval of its own oil law in August and the subsequent signing of several contracts. Iraq’s oil minister Hussain al-Shahristani has repeatedly said the contracts are illegal. However, Salih, a Kurd, said that it is up to the constitutional court to decide whether the contracts are legal, not the oil ministry. Iraq’s struggle to rebuild its damaged oil industry will depend on continuing improvements in the security situation, which will require co-operation from its neighbours and continued support from the US. Salih called for Turkey – at that time debating whether to authorise attacks on Kurdish rebels in Iraq – and Iran to respect Iraqi sovereignty. He also admitted that Iraqi politicians privately recognise that the country will continue to need US military support. “It’s our assessment that an abrupt withdrawal of coalition troops could trigger civil war or proxy war.” Iraq, he said, needs to find a long-term security arrangement with the US that is respectful of Iraq’s sovereignty, but recognises its need for continued support.