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Iraq Report: November 24, 2006

November 24, 2006, Volume 9, Number 41

COULD IRANIAN SUMMIT LEAD TO BREAKTHROUGH? On November 21, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani accepted an invitation from his Iranian counterpart to visit Tehran on November 25-26. Talabani and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will discuss ways to end the violence currently plaguing Iraq, and conflicting reports suggest Syria's president might also attend.

The veracity of reports claiming the Tehran event will be a trilateral summit is still in doubt, but Iraq's Al-Sharqiyah television also reported on November 20 that a three-way summit is scheduled for early December.

Reasons For Optimism

While U.S. officials have taken a cautious view of the reported summit, the announcement on November 21 that Syria and Iraq have reestablished diplomatic ties appears to signal increased cooperation.

Both Washington and Baghdad have long accused Syria of doing too little to prevent Arab fighters and weapons from crossing the porous Iraqi-Syrian border. On November 20, U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell said that "between 70 and 100 fighters are crossing the border into Iraq" every month, Reuters reported.

Furthermore, the U.S. military claims that many former Iraqi Ba'athists based in Syria are organizing raids across the border and are thought to form the backbone of the insurgency. The diplomatic thaw between Iraq and Syria could prompt Damascus to do more to stop Arab fighters from infiltrating into Iraq and rein in the Ba'athists -- moves that could help curb the insurgency.

Iran's initiative to convene a trilateral summit is presumably motivated by self-interest, but its increased cooperation could have significant implications.

Tehran has historical ties with some of Iraq's most influential Shi'a. Many of them, including Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), lived in Iranian exile during the reign of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. SCIRI's military wing, the Badr Organization, was also trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Iran is suspected by British and U.S. officials of continuing to fund and arm the militia.

Iranian pressure on SCIRI to reign in the Badr Organization -- which along with Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army is accused by the United States of carrying out attacks against Sunni Arabs -- could thus help ease sectarian strife. The question of how to deal with the Shi'ite militias has become a contentious issue between U.S. officials and Iraqi Shi'ite leaders, and Tehran's influence could prompt Iraqi Shi'ite leaders to be more amenable to reining in their forces.

In the broader political context, news of the proposed summit comes as both the United States and Britain openly discuss whether to engage Iran and Syria and enlist their help in stabilizing Iraq. This underscores the influence that both Iran and Syria have on Iraq's security, but proponents of engagement might also argue that it is an opportunity to create a broader working group to tackle these issues.

Iranian, Syrian Motives

It would arguably be in the interests of both Iran and Syria to have a stable Iraq. Each country shares a long border with Iraq, and if its neighbor descends into full-scale civil war -- or if the Baghdad government collapses -- the ensuing chaos could spill across those borders.

Officials in Tehran are likely to regard their summit initiative as enhancing Iran's position as a regional power, as well as placing it in solid position ahead of any anticipated shift in U.S. policy in Iraq. The Iraq Study Group -- led by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton -- is expected to issue its assessment and policy recommendations soon.

One possible conclusion that has drawn much attention is the idea of direct negotiations with Iran and Syria over Iraq. It might be tempting to regard Iran's summit proposal as an attempt to take the lead before any U.S. policy shift occurs, so as to avoid any appearance that it is falling in line with a U.S. plan.

Iran's willingness to assist Iraq might also serve as leverage in its standoff with the United States over Tehran's disputed nuclear program.

Syria might also seek to use its influence in Iraq to win concessions from Washington. Damascus could try to persuade the United States to pressure Israel to discuss a land-for-peace deal concerning the strategically important Golan Heights. Or it could push for the lifting of international sanctions and other steps to reduce its international isolation.

Outcome Uncertain

If a trilateral summit of the Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian leaders does take place, it is still unclear what chance it has of producing concrete solutions to stem the violence in Iraq. The holding of a three-way summit might in itself be viewed as a positive sign suggesting that Iran and Syria are serious about Iraqi stability.

But there are no guarantees that any tangible results will emerge from the meeting. Iran and Syria have expressed their desire to see a stable Iraq in the past, but critics have accused them of failing to follow up on those claims. U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey emphasized that point on November 20, when he urged Iran to play a more productive role in Iraq. Casey asserted that "the problem is not what [Iranian officials] say" but "what they do." (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on November 22.)

BRAIN DRAIN POSES THREAT TO FUTURE. The mass kidnappings of an estimated 150 employees from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research building in central Baghdad on November 14 underscores a huge problem for Iraq: the dwindling of its professional class.

The lack of viable opportunities coupled with the devastating daily violence has caused many of Iraq's engineers, doctors, lawyers, and professors to flee the country while some of those who remain have been killed. The massive "brain drain" may eventually have a chilling effect on Iraq's future ability to rebuild itself.

The flight of its best and brightest professionals is nothing new in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, an estimated 4 million people fled into exile. After the fall of the Hussein regime, many emigres returned in the hopes that Iraq would become a center of learning, scientific research, and art in the Arab world. However, instability and violence have forced many professionals to flee the country, despite the government raising their salaries in an effort to keep them from leaving.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an estimated 1.8 million people have fled to neighboring countries, mainly Syria and Jordan, since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. A November 3 UNHCR report said that 1,000 Iraqis a day are crossing over into Jordan and 2,000 a day into Syria. Based on those figures, the organization estimates that nearly 100,000 Iraqis are fleeing the country every month.

Professionals Targeted

While the data shows that there is a steady stream of Iraqis fleeing the country, there are also indications that there is a systematic assault on the professional class. Basil al-Khatib, a spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, told Al-Jazeera satellite television on November 14 that 160 university lecturers from the ministry have been killed since 2003.

The nonprofit group Medact estimated in a report released in March that 120 doctors and 80 pharmacists have been killed and more than 18,000 physicians have fled Iraq due to threats since the U.S.-led invasion. And according to the November 2 Brookings Institution's "Iraq Index," 40 percent of Iraq's professionals have left since 2003.

While most Iraqis fear being killed by seemingly random high-profile strikes such as car bombs or suicide attacks, Iraq's professionals are being targeted in part because of their status and wealth. Kidnappings have become increasingly common, and it has become something of a cottage industry since the fall of the Hussein regime. Anyone displaying signs of wealth, such as professionals and businessmen, are targeted for kidnapping and ransom, and payment does not always guarantee that a hostage will not be executed and their body dumped.

Driving Out The Elite?

There are also indications that some groups are intentionally trying to empty Iraq of its elite and intelligentsia. Abdul Sattar Jawad, a former editor of the now defunct "Baghdad Mirror" and a literature professor at Al-Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, blamed Shi'ite militias for threats and harassment that drove him from Iraq last year, the "San Francisco Chronicle" reported on November 15.

"This is the rule of the militias, the mob, the riffraff of people. They don't like education, they don't like intellectuals, and now the campuses are overruled by the firebrand clerics, by the religious militias," Jawad said.

Indeed, on Al-Iraqiyah television on November 15, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blamed the mass kidnappings at the Higher Education Ministry on discord between rival militia groups. "What is happening is not against the background of terrorism, but rather against the background of differences and clashes among militias affiliated with various sides," he said.

Still, others have suggested that the intimidation of teachers, doctors, and other professionals is part of a concerted effort by the Sunni-led insurgency to keep Iraq unstable. The attack on the Higher Education Ministry was perhaps intended to send a message to the government that the insurgents can strike anywhere and no place is safe.

Consequences For The Future

The flight of so many Iraqi professionals has created a brain drain that will have lasting effects on Iraq's future. With the flight of the professional class, Iraq lacks human capital with the necessary skills to keep its institutions, bureaucracy, and economy running efficiently. This could lead, in the worst-case scenario, to the breakdown of Iraqi society, but more likely will pose major setbacks to Iraq's social and economic development.

More importantly, without skilled professionals and academics, Iraq will have no one to train and teach a new generation, which would make it extremely difficult if not impossible to rebuild a successful and independent nation.

Indeed, lacking a core class of competent professionals could force Iraq to become even more dependent on the international community for assistance. That in turn would mean the international community, including the United States, would be obligated to remain in Iraq for a longer period of time to help get it on its feet, since Iraq would lack the specialized human resources to do so itself.

Finally, a massive brain drain of Iraq's professional class and intelligentsia may make it more difficult to establish a stable democracy. Historically, these groups form the foundation of what is understood as civil society and have played an important role in democratic transitions around the world. Therefore, their weakness or absence could mean that Iraq would be more vulnerable into falling victim to authoritarian rule, an idea that would certainly cause great concern to the international community. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on November 16.)