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Getting to "yes" in Iraq

Iraq, July 1, 2009

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Iraqis are celebrating on the streets as the U.S. withdraws its troops from the major urban areas of Iraq, but the fresh violence in Kirkuk serves as a sober reminder of the country's still fragile security condition. Many are focusing on what the Iraqi military and police can do to provide short-term security. But in the long term, Iraqis need a much broader view of security.

If there is any chance for Iraq to become a democratic nation with law and order, the U.S. and Iraq must invest in creative initiatives that equip Iraqis with skills to manage their own political and sectarian conflicts.

Early efforts to provide this support have taken a page from a classic American playbook: the win-win conflict management strategies developed at the Harvard Negotiation Project and popularized by the book Getting to Yes. The book has been a best seller for decades, and the strategies acknowledged as essential for business, law, and diplomacy professionals worldwide. Now a groundbreaking initiative is taking these strategies to the strife-ridden corners of Baghdad, Basrah and Kirkuk.

Funded by the U.S. State Department, the international aid organization Mercy Corps is using these conflict management strategies to build a network of professional Iraqi mediators that includes men and women, Sunnis and Shiites, and Arabs and Kurds.

The conflict management model we use encourages negotiators to find optimal gains for competing parties to satisfy their core interests. It recommends attacking problems, not people, and focusing on underlying interests rather than positions. This is not abstract theory; it is about the painstaking work of coming to tough agreements in settings where tensions and tempers run high.

These are approaches that have succeeded in many conflicts around the world and they can and are beginning to enable Iraqis to succeed as well. During this fragile time of transition Iraqis urgently need leaders who can hammer out a political agenda that considers the competing demands of people across ethnic, religious and political divides. Should the security situation stabilize, Iraq also needs savvy dealmakers who can negotiate smart oil-pricing and other commercial contracts on behalf of its people.

So far, the new Iraqi conflict management network has responded enthusiastically. We have seen how eager they are to apply the tools they learn to urgent conflicts they must handle regularly ranging from water and land disputes to elections and power sharing.

In Baghdad, I was struck by a tribal sheikh from Ramadi in Al Anbar Province who had lost family members to a failed Rumsfeld policy that left co-operating Iraqis especially vulnerable to assaults. At the end of the training, he stood up and said, "I never thought I'd have any reason to thank Americans, but now I do."

Although it is still in the early stages, the conflict management network has already shown results.

Take, for instance, how one network member recently used his training to find a peaceful resolution to a potentially violent situation in Basrah. An oil company had discovered deposits on land being tilled by sharecroppers. The company sought to kick them out. The distraught farmers, in turn, threatened to kill employees of the company. In the end, a deal was struck in which the company officials waited until after the farmers finished their harvest season to transfer the land, and some of the farmers even found jobs with the oil company.

I just returned from the Kurdistan region where we had gathered Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds from opposing political parties. It was an enormous accomplishment simply to bring these longtime rivals to the table. What unfolded in the following days was even more remarkable as they huddled together to better understand each other's interests and design solutions to their most contentious issues: power sharing and demarcation of regional borders in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Just one day after our team left the area, a truck bomb exploded near a Shiite mosque in Kirkuk, killing more than 80 people. In the aftermath of this tragedy, one community leader just trained by Mercy Corps employed his newly acquired skills to diffuse the anger in the community and prevent a further escalation of violence.

Should a resurgence of violence emerge after U.S. troops withdraw, Iraq will need even more leaders who can temper the natural inclination toward anger and revenge that often follows. Investing in a conflict management network of Iraqis who are armed with hands-on mediation skills is absolutely crucial for the future of a stable, democratic Iraq.

[Note: this piece originally appeared on GlobalSecurity.org.]