Guest Editorial Irani On Erbil Journey

Guest Editorial: Irani on Erbil


by George Emile Irani, Ph.D.

‘ Following the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, many American and international NGOs flooded Iraq peddling their wares to the weary and traumatized Iraqis. For almost a year, I have intermittently received offers from various US-based NGOs to go to Iraq and do conflict resolution and governance training work due to my background and linguistic capabilities. Given the violence wracking Iraq, especially Baghdad, I decided to turn down most of these calls to my heart’s chagrin. I have had extensive experience in rebuilding postwar societies especially in Lebanon and the Middle East.

In 1994, together with my wife and professional partner, Dr. Laurie King-Irani, I organized a conference-workshop in Lebanon on “Acknowledgment, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation: Lessons from Lebanon.” The conference, funded by the U.S. Institute of Peace, was the second gathering in the world dealing with the importance of forgiveness at that time (the first one was held in South Africa). The meeting was attended by several sectors of civil society in Lebanon and featured on CNN. This meeting and our follow-up work in Lebanon was of great help when I decided to accept an invitation to visit bilaad ar-raafidayn, the country of the two rivers—Tigris and Euphrates—as Iraq is known in Arabic.

Last April, I accepted an invitation by the Washington-based International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) to offer two workshops on conflict mitigation in Erbil (Northern Iraq). IFES is an NGO that concentrates its work on the monitoring and reduction of election-related violence and corruption. They have offices in several countries and two offices in Iraq, one in Baghdad and the other in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish area.

Reaching my destination was an adventure in and of itself. I was initially told to leave Victoria and head towards Amman, Jordan. From there I would then board a plane that flies directly to Erbil via Baghdad. On my way to Amman I was told that the flight to Baghdad was cancelled due to political bickering between the central Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities in Northern Iraq where the Erbil airport is located. I was not looking forward to board this plane because I had heard that it lands by diving in tight, spiraling circles above Baghdad’s airport to avoid insurgent missiles!

My alternative route was then to fly to Istanbul and then to Diyarbakir in Southeastern Turkey. Here I was on my third day of constant travel and my energies were very low. Thankfully, in Istanbul I had to wait a whole day to board the evening plane to Diyarbakir. After a short nap I went out to visit the famous [museum] . . . which was formerly the Aya Sophia Church, built by Emperor Constantine. This cathedral-turned-mosque is a live example that a dialogue between religions and cultures is very much alive and well despite some Ivy Leaguer’s wrong claim that we are living through an inevitable and bloody “clash of civilizations”! I then walked around the old city quarters dotted with stores selling all kinds of knick-knacks, music CDs and valuable carpets.

At around 6 p.m. I boarded my plane for Diyarbakir ( a Kurdish-dominated city in Southeastern Turkey. By the way, in Turkey, Kurds are known as “Mountain Turks” as Turkey has not yet policed its past in terms of its violent and turbulent relations with its Kurdish population. The same applies also to Turkey’s role and refusal to officially acknowledge the Ottoman responsibility in perpetrating the Armenian genocide). In Diyarbakir I spent the night at a small downtown hotel. Early next morning I was picked by Shaval—a Kurdish petroleum engineer—who in his free time used his car as a taxi to drive “internationals” to the border between Turkey and Iraq. Shaval spoke English fluently and was pretty much into the cyber culture now pervading most of the planet. A true “middle-man”, he will always do well.

In Erbil, I offered two consecutive workshops on conflict resolution training, one in English (four days) for IFES’s field officers who came from Basra (Southern Iraq), Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk and Erbil in the North. The second workshop (three days) was delivered in Arabic for various civil society organizations in Iraq. These intensive workshops were designed to help participants identify and appreciate some of the techniques and approaches to conflict resolution. These workshops were based on a hands-on approach and with relevance to the Iraqi experience. I covered topics such as the dynamics of conflict and the role of culture in conflict management and resolution. Other topics covered included communications skills (such as active listening, paraphrasing, summarizing, “I” messages, and open questions), negotiation culture, and collaborative problem solving. I decided, despite the objections of the Chief of Party (a retired Canadian army officer who was brought to head IFES’s work in Iraq), to dedicate a whole day to discuss issues of gender, culture, and conflict resolution.

My Lebanese background and North American experiences—both in the USA and Canada—came in handy for communicating and interacting with my Iraqi brothers and sisters. In my writings on conflict resolution and its application in non-Western cultures I have always advocated that the best approach was to allow the parties themselves to come up with the best solutions—if any—to control and mitigate their conflicts. The current situation in postwar and occupied Iraq reminded me a lot of Lebanon after the civil war ended (1990). Similar to the situation in Iraq today, several US-based NGOs “parachuted” themselves into Lebanon in the early 1990s, a society that was totally different from major cities such as Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles.

These US NGOs came with a specific agenda in mind (mostly designed and set by the US government) for the purpose of implementing some form of “civil society building” and “pacification” through social engineering. In the Arab Middle East, the purpose of conflict resolution training was to force some kind of peaceful relationships between Arabs and Israelis without paying attention to the pervasive feeling of victimization arising from the ongoing and festering Palestinian issue and other vestiges of the colonial and post-colonial eras. Issues of justice, rule of law, and accountability were shunted aside to be replaced by Roger Fishers’ famous (or infamous book), Getting to Yes.

Western, but foremostly US-based NGOs are doing a lot of harm in Iraq because they are driven by money, US politics, and the objectives of their funders such as USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development). One such NGO came to Iraq set up offices in Baghdad and throughout Iraq and began paying huge salaries (1300 US Dollars per month) when the monthly salaries in Iraq did not even reach $200 a month for a university professor or medical doctor! This inflated the expectations of young Iraqis who thought that by playing the American game they would suddenly become rich and famous. Adding insult to injury, those Iraqis who attended and still attend US-inspired training believe that after a 4-day workshop they will become “experts” in conflict resolution! My philosophy throughout my academic career is that the teacher ought to be a learner’s “guide by the side” not the front seat driver or an imparter of doctrine.

My experience in Iraq was very positive. I did not mind the long trip to reach Erbil (almost 4 days of travel by plane and car). Iraqi participants—both men and women—were very eager to learn more about conflict resolution techniques. Unfortunately, time was limited and my hosts did not appreciate the cultural and gender-oriented dimension I imparted to the participants. In both the English and Arabic language workshops, the day dedicated to women was highly appreciated in spite of some Iraqi men’s objections to the concerns that Iraqi women were raising.
To my mind, this is the tragedy of postwar reconstruction in Iraq. Occupiers are behaving like bullies in a china shop without paying any attention to the Iraqi people’s real and complex needs.

During a session on active listening, many Iraqis told me that it was very hard for them to apply such concept. I told them that I fully understand where they were coming from. I told them that they were like someone who was in jail and tortured for almost 30 years. Now, Iraqis are trying to come out and deal with their traumas. The needed space to express themselves and require institutional facilitation and nurturance of collective empowerment to tackle the many challenges facing their society: economic deprivation, the legacy of a horrible dictatorship, clan and tribal politics, discrimination against women and their rights as active members in Iraqi society, the American occupation and violation of the Geneva Convention and basic human rights (Abu Ghraib for instance) and the relentless insurgency.
In her evaluation of one of the workshops, an Iraqi woman lawyer wrote that what Iraq needed at this stage of its history was 1) a constitution and laws to be approved by a referendum; 2) putting Saddam Hussein and his followers on trial in front of fair courts) compensating the dictatorship’s victims; d) create lijaan musaalaha (committees of reconciliation); and, e) the formation of a government devoid of former members of the Baath Party.

All in all Iraqis are in desperate need to be empowered and learn how to explore and develop their own techniques to manage and resolve their conflicts. Training provided by the U.S. Institute of Peace in Amman or other locations will not satisfy the nascent civil society in Iraq. USIP is offering a five days simulation workshop called SENSE (“The Strategic Economic Needs and Security Simulation Exercise”). This simulation was created by a former member of the US military, Richard White, of the Institute of Defense Analysis (IDA) and is mostly focused on rebuilding the economies of postwar societies without any consideration to the history, contexts or cultures of Iraqi society. This institute and other US-based organizations are merely tools in the hands of a neoconservative regime that has totally lost control of the situation in Iraq and public opinion support at home, while violating international humanitarian law daily.

I am confident that Iraqis have the wherewithal and resources to rebuild their society. They will need all the help they can get. Canada and Canadian NGOS and professional conflict resolution associations can play a crucial and less imperial role.

George E. Irani is a core faculty in the Masters in Conflict Analysis and Management (MACAM) program at Royal Roads University. In August, he will be leaving for his new job at the Toledo Center for International Peace in Madrid, Spain. He can be reached at georgeirani a_t_ hotmail d_o_t com ‘

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