Iraq and the Arab World are preparing for life after the fall of the so-called Islamic State (IS). The remnants of what is left of IS’ forces are isolated to the remote desert region and the Iraqi government is soon expected to announce the terror group’s total military defeat in the country. Iraq’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari recently called for the creation of a “Marshall Plan” to help rebuild the country’s economy.

Violence is showing signs of declining, now at the lowest levels in five years. Yet Iraq now faces a plethora of social and economic issues which will need to be resolved in order to prevent future conflicts. Financial assistance is steadily working its way to the Iraqi government.

As the second-most populated city in the Arab World after Cairo, Iraq’s capital Baghdad will be at the center of this new environment. But is the city’s infrastructure ready to meet modern challenges and become a regional and international hub for transit, economics, and global politics?

At the city’s helm is the upstart mayor, Dr. Thirka Alwash, who took over the city’s municipal responsibilities in 2015. Alwash gained international recognition for her historic selection as the first woman to land the city’s top job. Highly qualified, she is a civil engineer and received a PhD in 2007 in construction project management from Baghdad University of Technology.

The past few years have seen Baghdad slowly begin to recover amidst, war, terrorism, and economic hardships, and Dr. Alwash regularly appears on the city’s front lines, whether repairing infrastructure or inspecting the aftermath of a deadly bombing. Touring the Karrada neighborhood in 2016 after one of the country’s most deadly bombings, Dr. Alwash promised to help compensate owners and offer government assistance to businesses.

There are visible signs of change. Last December, Christmas decorations were displayed prominently in bustling shops lining the Mansour district. Elsewhere, Iraqi biker groups ride along the country’s highways sporting Harley-Davidson gear.

Still, providing security for Baghdad has proven to be a logistical nightmare. In early 2017, the issue of an infamous concrete security barrier was debated amidst fears that the barriers should not be removed while terrorist sleeper cells remain in the city. Speaking to AI Monitor in January, one security officer said  “The checkpoints are burdening citizens and do not offer real benefits. They only cause traffic and create complaints and anger among citizens.” Last summer, Dr. Alwash held a joint meeting with the security forces to explore ways to alleviate the situation for the city’s residents.

Most experts point to the need to curb corruption now that IS has been defeated. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al Abadi regularly stresses the importance of fighting corruption; he most recently spoke at the Teachers Union Council and called for a new anti-corruption culture in Iraq. Several Iraqi politicians have fallen to such scandals, including the former governor of Mosul and Majid al-Nasrawi, Basra’s unpopular governor who fled to Iran last summer after an anti-graft probe was launched against him and his associates.

In 2015, Alwash pledged to create an atmosphere of “transparency and trust,” along with a dose of realism, in order to directly reach regular Iraqis. A lot has changed since then. Now married to an Iraqi army general, she is also highly active on Twitter, YouTube, Google Plus, and Facebook, firing off daily updates from around the city.

Mustafa H., who lives in Baghdad, told Raddington Report “Dr. Alwash is keen on monitoring social media in Iraq (particularly on Facebook) to gain an insight into the people’s daily problems. A lot of the issues raised by the public were treated immediately which can be considered as ‘quick wins’ for the mayor. However, these efforts will not be enough to regain the people’s trust in the government since they want to see significant changes among general services in the capital”.

While in the past, revitalization efforts had been the subject of corruption probes and scandals, Dr. Alwash pushed forward with the Al Rasheed Street development project aiming to spruce up the beautiful but decaying facades of the neighborhood’s historical buildings. She has also made efforts to repair the Freedom Monument designed by the famous Iraqi architect Jawad Salam in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to commemorate the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958.   

Electricity is a constant trouble for Baghdad’s residents. Power outages plague the city especially in soaring summer temperatures. Last summer, workers were sent home due to an extreme heat wave. The government secured a $400 million deal with GE Power to bolster the electrical grid, which is heavily reliant on neighboring Iran.  

Water is another struggle. In August 2016, the Baghdad Municipality launched the Rusafa water project for the city’s northern Bab al-Sham neighborhood. Baghdad’s Zayouna neighborhood especially suffers from flooding during Iraq’s rain season. In September Alwash visited sewer treatment facilities and inspected repairs to drainage system in anticipation of the rainy season, listening to the complaints of local residents who gave her a piece of their mind.  

Mustafa H. explained, “Recently, Dr. Alwash and the Directorate of Traffic Police announced one of the main highways would be closed due to maintenance needs. Although 6 weeks had passed, nothing actually happened in terms of maintenance to the highway. As a result, it took hours for people to commute to and from work and their homes in Baghdad’s Rusafa district. This resulted in a public outrage. Eventually, this led Alwash to settle for quick solutions and eventually decided to reopen the highway later in December, without commencing any type of action that would help to repair the damaged highway.”

With or without the help of the city’s administration, the capital is well on its way to restoring Baghdad’s cultural life. New cafes, such as this one on Abu Nuwas Street would look not out of place in New York or London. News of female book sellers appearing amongst the shops on the famous Al-Mutanabbi Street as well as the legendary Shabandar café, described by some journalists as Iraq’s collective for literature, is thriving and attracting global attention.

Others in the Baghdad’s cultural circles are feeling the renewed confidence. The art scene has been picking up with anew exhibit of twenty four Picasso lithographs on display at the Hiwar gallery in Baghdad. One Iraqi painter wondered: “This exhibition reflects a return to stability in the country. Who would have dared mount a show of such valuable works just a few years ago?”

Dr. Alwash will face the ultimate test at the hands of Baghdad’s voters in the city municipal elections next spring. Either way, it’s hard to argue that she has not at least tried to work towards building a new and improved Baghdad. Her determination and commitment will soldier on as Baghdad sets out for life in the post-conflict era.

About the author

CHRIS SOLOMON is an analyst specializing in Middle East history and politics, and works for a US defense consultancy monitoring local and international media reporting in the Middle East.