The Iraqi Trust Gap: A Missed Opportunity by Christian Chung

I have only been in Iraq for two months, but during my time here, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to break the “NGO-US Government bubble” that all too-commonly envelops most foreigners, making travel impossible and creating a false sense of what Iraq really is. When I leave here in August, I will be doing so with few answers and more questions about society, security and politics in this amazing country.

But as I continue to talk with everyone I can, from my driver to military generals to a shopkeeper to government ministers, to Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, Sunni and Shia, and Muslim, Christian, Yazidi alike, one common conception of the source of the problems Iraq faces for the future stems from the lack of one thing: trust.

It is not a complete explanation for the complexity of Iraqi politics, but it is a powerful one. Certainly a product of 30 years of oppression, the trust vacuum is not just isolated to the political elite who are at the heart of the most serious crisis to face the country since the fall of regime; it is filtered to every day people on the street, pitting ethnicities against each other, driving sectarian conflict, and creating a hopeless feeling among the many people who only wish to see Iraq delivered from the senseless cycle of violence.  

My first sense of this came after spending an undesirably short amount of time in Kirkuk, a city with ancient roots and tribal rivalries that date back to the Ottoman Age. With billions of barrels of oil estimated under the desert sand of the area, it is a highly disputed city, with claims from both the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region and the federal government in Baghdad. After the Iraqi Constitution was ratified in 2005, Kirkuk’s long-contested status was finally to be voted on by the people. The vote, according to Article 140, was to be held by the end of 2007. But like many things in Iraq, politics conflicted with a desire for peace, and the referendum has yet to take place.

I was in the city with the Peshmerga, the armed forces of the Kurdistan Region and “officially” part of the Iraqi defense structure. The Pesh unit I was with, the 3,000-man-strong “Golden Lion Battalion,” was responsible for security in the north of the city, with the Iraq Army responsible in the south and for shared patrols in the city center. I was and still am amazed at the treatment I received, simply by being an American. When I arrived at their small command outpost, the entire post were eagerly awaiting the arrival of my translator, Zana, and myself, and I was introduced to the men with hugs and kisses from every soldier I met. The commander, a short, skinny colonel named Sherko, explained to me his views of the security situation over an exquisite meal of lamb and vegetables. To him, everything stemmed from the fact that many people in the Iraqi Army, a large number of which he claimed were loyal Ba’athists who had infiltrated the organizations, simply did not trust his men when they were forced by circumstances to work together for the people of Kirkuk.

“How can there ever be security when the person you patrol with was part of the army that killed many of your people just 15 years before?” I remember him asking me. Still, he recognized the need to get past the horrors of the past and work with Iraq’s communities for the good of his country. “Maybe more people need to do what we’re doing,” I remember saying in response. He only silently, but almost in an exhausted way, nodded his head.

But Colonel Sherko is an exception in a city that is divided along ethnic lines, with Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen occupying different sections of the city, all seemingly waiting for the moment to fight for control of the city and its black gold. As one shopkeeper told me, Kirkuk, symbolic of Iraq, is a “can of gasoline in a match factory.”

With the political wrangling going on to oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the opposition coalition seems just about as fractured and divided between themselves, as they all claim to be for Maliki and his Shia Dawa Party. As one senior foreign ministry official in Baghdad told me, “The extreme lack of trust means deadlines and deals mean nothing here. Nothing."

“That’s why,” he continued, “this crisis has not been solved yet; even the opposition changes on a daily basis, and Iran is in the background of all of this.”

Unfortunately, the attitude of those many people who tell me about their desire for the leaders of the different parties and ethnic and religious sects to understand the impact political conflict is having on the social landscape of Iraq is not in the majority in many areas which I have traveled during my short stay. Another common line I hear in many places is one of lost hope. “The next generation is what we have to hope and pray for,” the thought goes.

I posed this question to Botan Osman, a young, Harvard-and-Manchester-educated Head of the Kurdistan government’s Department of Information Technology, and was taken aback by how quickly he dismissed the notion.

“I think the next generation argument is pretty dangerous, because the next generation is a product of this generation,” he replied to me over espresso in his spacious office in Erbil. “So if we leave everything with our fingers crossed, hoping that the next generation will be better, it’s not going to be.”

Though I have been here only two months, its already painfully clear that Iraq cannot change and develop with the mentality of the past, a mentality that bred and nurtured a wide-reaching undercurrent of mistrust between Iraqis of different religious sects or ethnicities. I do not know what, when, or even if, this can be changed, but for Iraq to escape the cycle of violence some parts seem to be stuck in, society has to foster one thing: trust.

Christian Chung is a sophomore in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is currently working in northern Iraq as the Security and Political Reporter for the English language section of Rudaw News, with a focus on Iraqi political and security developments, Arab-Kurd relations, the political challenges faced by Iraqi ethnic groups, and security throughout the country since the American withdrawal.