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The UN’s man in Baghdad


maldenov-largeOriginally published by the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

FLETCHER FORUM: How did your experience as the Bulgarian Foreign Minister, and even further back, as a staff member with the Open Society Foundation and National Democratic Institute (NDI), shape your view of your time in Iraq

NIKOLAY MLADENOV: It all started in 2006, when I went to Iraq for the first time. I was working with NDI on what looked like a short-term project to the newly elected Council of Representatives set up their parliamentary committees. We really started from scratch. We started from zero.

I borrowed heavily on my own experience from back home. Between 2001 and 2005 I was a Member of Bulgaria’s Parliament, I had been a young MP who had gone through training too. It was fascinating to work with the Iraqis, they were all eager to learn. I ended up writing two booklets on committee works and the role of MPs. Both, I think, were used extensively later by NDI and reprinted.

The year 2006 was probably the worst time in Iraq. We had twenty to thirty rockets per day targeting the parts of Baghdad and the Green Zone every day. It was really unsafe. The difficult time however brought us all together and I started developing strong relationships with many Iraqis. The people I worked with were inspiring. They braved the security threats and day after day came to work to build their new country. Some, if not all, were not sure if they would get back to their families at the end of the day. It was a tough time.

After leaving my Iraq project I went home and delved back into Bulgarian politics. In early 2007 I was elected to the European Parliament, but Iraq stayed with me. I joined up with fellow MEPs and we set up the Iraq Group in the European Parliament.

I think what all of this has really taught me, and I’ve tried to use it now with the UN, is that you have to always be very practical and very specific when looking how to help a country in transition. Stay away from generalities, broad analysis and guidance but try to identify actionable items and specific policies. I guess when you speak from your own experience, having gone from dictatorship to democracy, that gives you more credibility to have that type of a discussion.

I’ve tried very much in the UN to be practical. Iraq faces massive problems, but because of the violence and the difficulties of transition, people don’t often enough look beyond their own plate. Many other countries have gone through great difficulties and been able to come through. Maybe somewhere out there, there’s a solution that they ought to consider. For me, one of the roles the UN can play is to bring that international experience, knowledge to people in Iraq. One of our roles should be exactly that — to help Iraq see that its not alone, that there is knowledge and experience out there in dealing with the tough problems of today and to help people use that to their own benefit.

FLETCHER FORUM: Where were you last summer on the day when you heard that fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL) had taken Mosul?

MLADENOV: In the Prime Minister’s office telling him that ISIL would take over Mosul. On the 9th of June, in the morning.

We had been monitoring Mosul and Nineveh for a long time, and it was very clear that ISIL had been for months “harvesting” the city: kidnappings, assassinations of government officials and local council members. Nineveh is the only province in Iraq where practically every single elected official throughout the whole province had been kidnapped, killed, or chased away from their offices in some way.

The whole government infrastructure had been challenged at every single level by ISIL. At the end of May, early June, it was very clear that large numbers of fighters were coming across from the border of Syria and that they would make a push for Mosul. Our security analysis was that the city would not hold and would collapse under this pressure.

On the morning of the ninth of June, I went to see Prime Minister Maliki with a very big map saying, ‘look, this is our security analysis. The city will fall.” What we could not have foreseen was what would happen after that. What we believed would happen was a fight that might last for a few days and then perhaps the city would fall, like Falujjar earlier in the year. But we had no way of seeing that the Iraqi Army between Mosul and Baghdad, within 48 hours would melt away effectively without a fight.

My advice to the government was to strengthen the Iraqi army, but as an immediate priority to begin cooperating with the Kurdish Peshmerga. We could have helped find an arrangement to guarantee that the disputed territories would not be taken over by one side or the other. This cooperation was vital however if Mosul were to stand a chance. We had shared this analysis with the Kurds before, and they had also been in touch with the Prime Minister before the fall of Mosul to warn him too.

The Prime Minister saw things differently. I think it was about 3 A.M. on the 10th of June when I got a call saying, “it’s happening. The city has fallen, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing, and the Kurds are moving in to get involved.” By the next morning we could see this meltdown of the Iraqi Army all the way to Baghdad. After that things unfolded very quickly, we had to relocate most of the UN staff from Baghdad to other places because we didn’t know whether Baghdad would hold and I urgently briefed the Security Council on the situation on the ground.

FLETCHER FORUM: What was your initial reaction? What was Prime Minister Maliki’s reaction to the both the initial meeting and the 3 A.M. phone call?

MLADENOV: That 3 A.M. phone call came from the Iraqi security forces, but I think at that point they were scrambling to do whatever they could to hold on to Baghdad and to protect Samarra, which was the next city exposed to ISIL and the location of a big Shia shrine. If Samarra had fallen, or a big fight had occurred there, then it would have really been a sectarian conflict. Thankfully, Baghdad and the south of the country were preserved.

In that meltdown however ISIL gained not only territory, but access to vast amounts of weapons, old and cash. According to Government sources the Central Bank in Mosul had some $450 million in their coffers. They had control of almost the entire border between Iraq and Syria so that they could easily transfer people to Anbar, Nineveh. The myth that ISIL is invincible however was created not by their victories on the ground, but by the meltdown of the Iraqi Army. ISIL didn’t battle their way to the gates of Baghdad, they walked their way down to Baghdad.

FLETCHER FORUM: Not long after ISIL’s advance, negotiations over the formation of a new government in Iraq kicked into high gear. Here in the U.S. there were a lot of news reports about the haggling and whether or not Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would step down. Could you walk us through those weeks and tell us what the environment was like? What were people thinking? What were you thinking?

MLADENOV: If you go back to before the elections, there was speculation that the election would not take place. People were saying [Maliki] would postpone the election or find a way to not hold it. In fact he always adamantly denied such accusations and to his credit, he never tried to stop the election. When the election results came in, I think everyone was surprised for different reasons.

To me the election results had two pieces of good news in it. One, you had over sixty-two percent of Iraqis come out to vote, which is a pretty high turnout given the security environment. Secondly, no political party was even close to a majority. The message from the electorate was clear: ‘We are not going to give one person or one group the full mandate to run the country, we want you all to coalesce and save the country together.’

To me that was the reading of the election results. What followed was a typical debate about what happens next. Should they do what they did in 2009, when the spent almost a year negotiating a grand deal for the formation of a government? There were people saying that Iraq needed a grand deal. That they need to agree on who will be the Prime Minister, the President, the Speaker of Parliament, and once we have that done, they we can take it to a vote in Parliament and move forward.

Then there were others, and this was the UN line, that said ‘no, you have a Constitution and you have to base everything you do on it and its timeframe. If you do this grand deal thing you’re not really acting according to the Constitution, as it has clear timeline. You have to convene Parliament, elect a Speaker, elect a President and he should nominate a Prime Minister’.

I’ll admit that we pushed very hard with everybody trying to convince them that this is the way to go forward. And the logic behind it was that in an environment in which you have ISIL on the doorstep and the Army collapsing, people need to see the institutions of state working. Sticking to the constitutional timeline is the best option. If they had failed to do that, the message would have been one of complete chaos. People would have seen politicians squabbling over positions while the country is in a free fall. Abiding by the constitutional timelines was the legitimate response.

Thankfully, most agreed with this approach and the first session of the newly elected parliament was held on time with only a couple of days delay. Then the Speaker was elected, then the President was elected. Once that had been put in place the question came to who will the Prime Minister. Then there was another internal debate about who would constitute the largest group in Parliament, because the largest group gets to nominate the Prime Minister. This was an important step before the nomination of Mr. Abadi. Once he was nominated by the President, it was clear that the goal would be to have a government of national unity.

FLETCHER FORUM: Going back to this idea of national unity, when the Iraqi electorate is indicating that they don’t want any one segment of Iraq to take over, what is the role of leadership in this situation to create a more inclusive process?

MLADENOV: Leadership is extremely important. It’s not just political leadership. In all my statement I always referred to political, religious and civil leaders as they all had a role to play to bring the country together.

In Iraq, and Iraq is not unique in this sense, you have different authorities. You have the political authorities—the people that have their parties and lead their followers, define their platforms. You have the religious leaders, more specifically in Iraq and particularly within the Shia community, you have the Marja in Najaf that have a very strong moral guiding function within the Shia community. And then you have local tribes and leaders.

For agreement to be reached you need all of these leaders together on the same message. Before the elections it was quite common to see the Prime Minister talk about one thing, the President talk about something else, and the Speaker of Parliament talk about a third thing. And then the religious authorities would also get lost in this cacophony.

Now, I think one of the most encouraging developments is that you see all of these people coalesce around a similar message. Yes, they all still have their differences, but the message that they need to be united, to stand up to this terrorist threat, to rebuild their country, that they cannot have one community dominate everything and there needs to be a balance. This is the core of the political message that can hep save and rebuild the country.

In Iraq the leadership of Ayatollah Sistani is extremely important for the Shia community, I can’t overstate how important it is. Then with the tribal leaders you need to be careful because there are many different tribal elders and you need to work with a broader number of people. On the political side you have a very different picture.

If you look the Kurdish side of the equation, you know who the leaders of the parties are, you know the power that they wield within their community and understand how that works. Within the Shia community you can also see the political leadership. But the really tough challenge is the leadership within the Sunni community, because over the years it has broken into different groups and then with ISIL taking over their provinces, many of these Sunni political leaders in Baghdad really struggle because they are put between a rock and a hard place. Their constituency is gone because it’s under ISIL’s control, yet they have to fight for that constituency in Parliament. There is a leadership issue there that needs to be addressed somehow.

FLETCHER FORUM: In the lead up to ISIL’s advances in Iraq, there was a lot of dissatisfaction within the Iraqi Army. How do you think the difficulties of creating inclusive institutions to strengthening the Iraqi Army today?

MLADENOV: That’s one of the most fascinating topics and a very long discussion. If you go back to the very beginning in 2003, everyone focuses on Paul Bremer’s decision to dissolve the army and police. That was the wrong decision and we all pretty much accept that, but after that there was a period of time that the Sunni Iraqi community was refusing to be a part of the new democratic political establishment in Iraq. They were boycotting politics and staying away. That to some extent prevented Sunnis from joining the new Iraqi Army, the political process, or the institutions.

This helped create the environment in which the Shia from the south started dominating the rank and file of the army. They themselves had been oppressed under Saddam Hussein and they saw democracy as a tool to guarantee that they will never be in a position of weakness again. Some of the militias, Badr’s in particular, were integrated into the police or the army. The end result today is that Iraqi Sunnis have a leadership problem, while the state institutions dealing with security in particular, are dominated by the Shia community.  There needs to be a balance if Iraq is to live in peace.

Then you had the de-Baathification laws. The affected all members of Saddam’s Baath party, including military officers. Over time some have been brought back in, however the process reeked of favoritism and lacked transparency. Coming back to Mosul, you had a big disconnect between the servicemen in the army—mostly Shia from the South, and officers and generals who had either joined the army recently or beloved to Saddam’s regime and had ‘adapted’ to the new reality. Not a very bright picture, right?

Ideologically the Iraqi army never developed a strong national base of what they were fighting for or what they were defending. Loyalty to the community, to the tribe was stronger than loyalty to the state. Corruption was everywhere. Money was getting lost and weapons were not being delivered. Living conditions for the soldiers were appalling. All of this had a demoralizing effect on the rank and file. And then when you see the enemy across the river and coming for you, and you see your generals say, “I’m going home,” everybody just left. That is what happens when you don’t have a strong esprit de corps holding the armed forces together.

The big challenge now is not to reconstruct the Iraqi army in the old way, but to reconstruct it on a truly national basis. This will take time, it will be slow and difficult. To succeed you need to go back to politics and prove that the government is inclusive, that is doing the right things and is engaging everybody and communities are not feeling marginalized. That message from the top of the country will inevitably get down to the rank and file and people will feel safe to join that army. But it will take time.

FLETCHER FORUM: What is the most important lesson on state building from your time in Iraq that you would impart to the person who takes on that role next for the UN?

MLADENOV: Many, many lessons. Where do I start? Its not your country, you can help, but you can’t do it for them. If you try and take decisions instead of allowing local people to take decisions, even when you know they are wrong, you will mess things up. Advise, help, give options, argue, encourage… but don’t try to do it for them. It’s their country and their ways. All we can do is help, but they have to take responsibility. This is the really big lesson.

The second thing is to bring in as much international experience as you can. At the end of the day, you are dealing with people who have for generations lived in some sort of war and dictatorship: Saddam Hussein, 1979, war with Iran, Kuwait, the first Gulf War, sanctions, the second Gulf War, terrorism, sectarianism, etc. Generations have grown up in this environment. You really need to help open people’s minds and show them the experience of other places and what’s been done elsewhere.

When you think about any issue related to minorities in Iraq, leave aside ISIL, you can just look Europe and you’ve got thousands of examples from country to country. And if you look into the details, you will find something that might work. Or at least it will give them ideas to look into, how about this or how about that?

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