About the Author: Christopher R. Hill serves as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.
When the history books are written for Iraq, 2010 may be viewed as a truly landmark year. The year holds the promise of Iraq’s first democratic transition following national elections in March. International oil companies are set to return for the first time in almost 40 years, a sign of new hope for Iraq’s economy. Significantly, as democracy takes root in Iraq, the drawdown of the military means our diplomats and civilian experts will step forward across the country to preserve the remarkable gains our colleagues in uniform achieved with such courage and commitment. We will continue to work in lockstep with the military to advance U.S. interests and achieve a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, as President Obama said.
The first milestone will be March 7, when Iraq will hold national elections that will produce a new parliament. After election day, formation of a new government will mark Iraq’s first ever democratic transition. There will be challenges in the run-up to and aftermath of the election; to be sure, politics is a full contact sport in Iraq and electioneering is well underway amongst candidates jockeying for position. In this context, DRL and USAID have provided more than $200 million for comprehensive democracy-building programs, with a view to letting ballots, not bullets, decide the future of the next government.
The passage of the Election Law in December showed that newly confident Iraqi lawmakers could reach across party and sectarian lines to achieve a compromise to benefit the whole country. In fact, some surprise players emerged from both Shia and Sunni blocs to resolve very difficult issues, allowing the process to move forward. The deal marked a genuine advance for political openness in Iraq. That could bode well for the year ahead and create a valuable precedent of parliamentary compromise, even on the toughest issues.
Iraq’s economy is also on the cusp of real transformation. In December, Iraq held a second oil bid round that was as transparent as the plexiglass box in which the bids were cast. Major oil companies fought for rights to develop some of Iraq’s richest oil fields and in the end the majority of the fields were awarded for development, which could completely transform Iraq’s economic development landscape – including by possibly creating tens of thousands of jobs for Iraqis. Progress will not be easy. It has been decades since international oil firms have operated in Iraq. That is why the Commerce Department’s Commercial Law Development Program is advising the Iraqi government on best practices with respect to contracts, energy sector legislation and alternative dispute resolution, among other areas.
The southern region of Iraq is in an excellent position be the engine of this economic activity as oil companies start launching operations in the area. On my trip to Basra at the end of last year, members of the business community shared with me their vision of returning the city to a thriving hub in the region. Our Provincial Reconstruction Team in Basra and our civilian experts in the port of Umm Qasr are working daily with our military colleagues and local authorities to help lay the groundwork for sustainable growth. Beyond the south, my travels around the country last year drove home to me the invaluable work of our PRTs. In 2010, our experts in the fields of health, rule of law, agriculture and other areas will continue their yeoman work with the Iraqi people.
This will also be an exciting year for people-to-people exchanges, thanks to our vigorous public diplomacy engagement in Iraq. Our Fulbright Scholars program, with 70 students, is the largest in the Middle East. We are also launching a university linkage program that will provide technical and curriculum assistance to Iraqi institutions. And our English language education experts have fanned out across the country to provide training for teachers and administrators.
Finally, by the end of 2010 the complexion of the U.S. presence in Iraq will look quite different. More than half of our military colleagues will have departed. But that does not mean we will be any less hands-on in our approach. As Iraq builds its own security, its own democracy, its own prosperity, we civilians will be there every step of the way – as trainers, as advisers, as mentors. Together, we will help Iraq succeed.