Iraqi Foreign Minister Calls for American Help With Decentralization, ‘Cultural Change’
WASHINGTON — It isn’t often high-level bureaucrats advocate in favor of decentralization, but that’s precisely what Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein advised at the Wilson Center on Monday morning.
Twenty years after the fall of Saddam’s Iraq, in a country still struggling with cycles of violence as well as political and economic challenges, Hussein told James F. Jeffrey, former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, he not only believes his nation depends too heavily on oil but that the United States should help Iraq to change mindsets and create new opportunities.
Assistance with decentralization may be the key.
“We consider the United States an ally,” Hussein said. “You were there when we had difficulties; you were there when we were fighting ISIS. So when we were under threat, you were there with us. … Fighting together against terrorists creates special ties.
“[But] the question is not only about the old days,” he said. “The question is about now and the future. How are we going to cooperate and have a framework for the future? … What we need and what we want now [from the U.S.] has to do with building and rebuilding our economy.”
Hussein calls the economy “the main challenge” in Iraq, but he stressed that it is tied to “the real threat to our [collective] future,” oil.
In addition to investment in Iraq’s gas fields, Hussein hopes for foreign support for natural gas capture. He suggested that decentralizing oil — the “main pillar of the [Iraqi] economy which is in the hands of the government” — could encourage a sustainable energy future while also serving as a first step in building an alternate economy not just for gas, but agriculture, tourism, services, health care and education in Iraq.
“We need you to help us,” Hussein stated. “The first place we need you is … the threat to humanity, and to the world, which has to do with climate change.”
But he also stressed the need for law and “cultural change.”
“Our constitution is a liberal constitution … but many articles in the constitution, I can say about 50, have not been translated into law, and even if they are translated into law, we need to change the culture. The culture of centralism cannot fit with the constitution,” he said.
“We recognize that Iraqi youth are suffering,” he added, citing the need for increased job opportunities as unemployment in Iraq reaches over 14%.
Largely due to a mindset that government jobs are stable, with Iraq’s high oil revenues previously commanding job security and guarantees, Hussein contends that Iraq’s job seekers “don’t see working with the private sector the same.”
“All young people, when they graduate, they are approaching the government and they want to have a job,” he said, asking, however, how the Iraqi government can continue to pay the salaries that its people have come to expect if oil prices go down.
“Decentralization is the key to all of these problems that we have, especially on the economic level,” Hussein said, adding that he regrets the mentality in Baghdad does not support this. “Not everything must be decided in the center.”
Multiple attempts at decentralizing various political, administrative and fiscal authorities from the central government to provincial and district levels within Iraq began in 2003, but these efforts came to a standstill in late 2019.
Now, in addition to Hussein, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani also stresses the development of Iraq’s private sector, saying the nation’s economic situation cannot be corrected unless the private sector plays an essential role in its recovery.
Kate can be reached at [email protected]