Teaching Conflict Resolution in War:

A Case Study from Iraq


By Elisa Levy, M.A.




Part I: Conflict Resolution in War Time Iraq


Teaching Conflict Resolution in a War Zone


Teaching conflict resolution in the midst of a war is like teaching farmers in a food shortage how to plant and yield crops. Who cares what happens a year from now if people are starving today? When people are literally fighting to stay alive, teaching them how to negotiate and mediate conflicts isn’t what they need most. The real work, it seems, is in prevention.


This is what I felt in April, 2007, when I was asked by an international NGO, CHF International, to co-facilitate a two-week training for Iraqi community leaders on conflict resolution, negotiation and mediation. What could I teach that would apply to their immediate situation? Why would they want to learn these skills when simple daily tasks could be life threatening? How could they apply the information in a constantly changing environment? All of this made the assignment seem like a mistake, not to mention the fact that I am American, female and Jewish.


I agonized over these questions even as I started my journey to Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, where the two-week session with Iraqi community leaders was held. Despite my doubts, I decide that I needed to try. I realized in the middle of the training, why, thankfully, my doubts were wrong, and how truly crucial it can be to teach these skills in the throws of a violent crisis. This discovery and the lessons learned from the process are the purpose of this chapter. The goal is to explore the utility of teaching conflict resolution in war, and to identify key interventions and challenges within that context that practitioners around the world can apply to similar efforts.



Levels of Conflict in Iraq


When most westerners think of the Iraqi conflict, they conjure up a single image of the American-lead coalition forces fighting against a rogue regime. The moral imperative to protect a country from its ruthless leader, and the need to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction were the stated goals when the war began in 2003.


Within one month, coalition forces had completed their mission: They had captured Tikrit, gained control of all areas suspected of hiding weapons, and declared the war over. Sovereignty was transferred to an interim government in June 2004 and six months later Iraqis voted in the first multi-party elections in 50 years. This alleged victory, however, was hardly the end of conflict in Iraq.


The war gave way to what many experts on the region anticipated - more war. The battle between coalition and opposition forces ensued, and unleashed violent conflicts between sectarian and tribal groups within Iraq.  Though Sunnis are the majority in the Muslim world, the majority in Iraq are Shiites. Prior to the war, Sunnis and Shiites lived together. The conflict fuelled resentments and lead to violence between and within communities.


Most people don’t realize that tribal conflicts are as contentious as sectarian ones in Iraq. Tribal culture, particularly in rural areas, is a core focus for individuals and communities. Affiliations with tribes and informal systems of governance at the tribal level make up the foundation for social cohesion, education, livelihoods and community. Upheaval in Iraq has opened up simmering tribal tensions, and created new ones.

The cost of these conflicts has been high for coalition forces, and much higher for Iraqis. Since the beginning of the war, more than 4,300 coalition soldiers have died - 4,000 of them Americans. While the number of Iraqis killed in the war is not clear, the Iraqi health ministry estimated 100,000 to 150,000 by the end of 2006.  Another source, the Lancet Survey, estimates a much higher Iraqi death toll, reaching more than 600,000.

The complexity and multitude of conflicts in Iraq poses difficult questions for practitioners working on conflict resolution. At what level do we begin?  If we choose a specific kind of conflict (tribal, sectarian, coalition vs. opposition), are we not forsaking others? And what happens when all levels of conflict, international, sectarian and tribal -  must be addressed in order to move forward on any type of resolution, big or small?


The only way to begin is to look for common denominators within the vast complexity of conflicts at the coalition, sectarian and tribal levels, and take into consideration the fact that all of these, and others may be operating simultaneously. It therefore becomes a balancing act between depth and breadth. There are countless targets, and all are in constant motion.



The Project – Training of Trainers for Iraqi Community Leaders


In 2004, five international NGOs established a Community Action Program (CAP) to help Iraqis rebuild at the community level. The NGOs established Community Action Groups (CAGs) throughout Iraq comprised of elected prominent men and women in the community, including school principals, Mukhtars, Sheiks, directors of hospitals, and teachers. The idea behind the program was to support self directed rehabilitative efforts. During the first phase, the emphasis was on infrastructural development, building and re-building roads, hospitals, pipelines and water irrigation projects. The NGOs served as a resource for logistics, securing contract labor, and guiding the process when necessary.


Experiences among the CAGs in Iraq varied greatly, however they all shared the problem of paralysis in their work. Across the board, CAGS faced internal conflicts within and between communities, leading to a break down, and in many cases, a complete halt in the process. Some communities could not agree on priorities for projects; others fought with neighboring villages when trying to access a water source; others battled with dishonest and undependable contractors.


In 2006, CHF International began preparing for phase two with the goal of directing funds to economic and health related projects. They asked CAG members what they needed to progress; many requested negotiation and mediation skills in order to complete the projects and continue their work.


A team of two consultants, (me and another female, American trainer), were hired by CHF International to conduct a two-week training on conflict resolution, negotiation and mediation for 16 CAG members and 7 CHF staff members. The goal was to design a training of trainers (TOT) through which participants could train their fellow CAG and community members, and use these skills to effectively implement the projects in their communities. We worked with local trainers to share the planning and facilitation process.


The project resulted in the development of three training sessions that CAG members took back to their communities and taught to their colleagues. CHF staff traveled throughout the country to provide technical assistance and support to each of the CAG trainers.  The sessions were compiled into a handbook, and distributed to other CAGs throughout Iraq.



Part II: Lessons Learned from Teaching Conflict Resolution in War


Six main lessons came from the training with Iraqi community leaders. While every culture and training is different, these experiences could be applicable to other situations in war-time settings. They include: 1) immediate applicability, 2) cultural flexibility, 3)  ideological commitment, 4) gender sensitivity, 5) peer teaching, and 6) time on the ground. Combined, these six areas, enabled the participants to learn skills they needed to move forward on their community projects, and to begin teaching these skills to their fellow community members.



Immediate Applicability


Abstract ideas don’t apply in the midst of a crisis. People need practical, hands-on tools. The CAG members came to the training feeling frustrated. They knew the funding, (at least some of it), was available to begin rebuilding parts of their communities, but they could not get beyond conflicts between community members, contractors and neighboring villages. Water pipes sat unfinished; foundations for roads were taking months to complete, and people within many of the towns and villages were at odds with each other.


In one community a neighboring village chief threatened to take up arms if the community accessed their water source. He believed there would not be enough for his own village if he granted access to his neighbors. In another village, community members protested the building of a road that did not pass by their homes. They refused to allow the project to move forward unless they were included. Most communities struggled with contractors who did not complete the jobs, demanded too much money, or did not adhere to their agreements. This frustration was the fuel for the training.


Without an immediate situation in which to apply the skills learned, and without  concrete examples, the training could not have been nearly as important to the participants. This truth became particularly apparent at the beginning of the fourth day of the training. We were preparing to drive to the hotel where the training was held when a car bomb exploded just blocks away, shattering the glass windows of the hotel, and causing more than 60 deaths. It was the first time there had been a bomb in Irbil since the beginning of the war, and while no one expected it, the event hardly shocked the participants.


Our security officers held us back from the training that day, and we offered, over the phone to give the participants the day off since we could not come. Not one person agreed. Instead they chose to use the day to delve more deeply into some of the conflicts they were having in their respective communities, and to seek advice from their colleagues. They stayed until the late evening hours on their own, exchanging new ideas and planning ways they could use the tools they were learning to make progress on the projects they had started in their communities.


The next day, when we walked into the training room of a new location, there was little talk of the bombing. Instead, they wanted to seek our input on their discussions from the previous day.


Never before had I seen such dedication and a sense of urgency about a training. I realized that the pending crisis – hospitals and roads half built, contracts stuck in negotiations, pipelines laid down but without water running through them – were the immediate crises they believed could be solved with the right tools and skills. They may not have had power over the war, but there were things waiting to get done in their villages that could change the lives of their people - and they were dedicated to making that happen.


The lesson for the practitioner teaching conflict resolution is that much depends on the immediacy and efficacy with which the skills shared can be applied. There must a tangible, clear project, aim and end in sight. The training must not only refer to the situation, but be rooted in it, constantly using examples from participants’ experiences to practice the skills they are learning.





Cultural flexibility


Understandably, there was a lot of skepticism on the first few days of the training. Hands were constantly raised, followed by protests and questions about the validity of what we were teaching, until, one of the most prominent elders, a Mukhtar and explained something to us.


“This idea of a win-win solution isn’t something that we particularly embrace. I am a  Mukhtar, so generally there is a hierarchy, and I am the person who makes the decisions…We don’t negotiate because we don’t have to negotiate.” In the same breath, the Mukhtar turned to his colleagues and explained to them that things were changing in the country so constantly that old forms of tribal governance were no longer the same, and communities were battling to the point where negotiating seemed to be one of the only alternatives to violence. “We need this,” he said, trying to convince them that the skills might help. He turned back to us, “Do you think I could use these negotiation skills with my son?” he asked half-smiling.


This Mukhtar’s point was an eye-opener for me. I was well briefed by the staff prior to the training and had done enough research to expect resistance, but I didn’t truly understand the tribal culture of decision making, and how that was impacted, and changed by the sudden loss of the state. Nothing was the same as it had been, which lead to a vacillation between adherence to old norms and openness to new ideas that could address the current chaos.


The question for the practitioner is how to introduce concepts that don’t fit into traditional culture of decision making. Arguably the shift of power hierarchies and forms of governance caused by war provide an opening to introduce new methods and ideas. At the same time, these ideas, particularly when presented by representatives of the dominant invasive forces (in this case, Americans), can be viewed as ignorant at best and undermining.


One could make the argument that this kind of effort diversifies Iraqi’s sentiments towards Americans. My translator said to me, “I hate America because of what this war has done to my people. But I have found a friendship with American individuals who are here working in Iraq.”


Though the training was embraced by the participants, it would be best to have non-Americans facilitate. Trainers from the Middle East, with a background in contemporary conflict resolution skills would have been a better choice. We, as Americans, were in fact simply lucky that the individuals in the training were willing to let down their guard and trust us enough to engage in the training.



Ideological Commitment


On the first day of our training, a tribal chief  asked my  translator to tell me something. He spoke with almost no expression, as though the reality of his situation had not yet registered fully. “I had two daughters before the war,” he explained. “One was killed in an ambush near our village, and the other died of diarrhea the day Sadam was hanged.”


I was stunned. I had been in post-war settings and heard the stories of loss and pain, but something about his expression, and the knowledge that there could me more loss to come left me utterly speechless. I stared blankly at my translator, who studied my face for moment and said, “Don’t look so surprised. This is the story of every person in the room.”


A week later, when I had established some trust with the participants, I asked what motivated them to come to the training. Many of them, particularly the women, had to risk their own safety to get to northern Iraq, and none of them were being compensated for their work. “What choice do we have?” said one of the older women. “We have to do something.”


The choice between surrendering to the conflict and working towards progress, in any way, was at stake for the participants. They didn’t fight in the war; they fought the war itself. The worse things became, the more they felt a sense of urgency to do something about it. In the evenings, when it was time for us to go, they would ask for more work, more reading, and would stay up until all hours, gathering whatever information they could, to take back their communities.


When I discussed my observations with the CHF staff, they explained that they had carefully selected the people in the room. There were many more CAGs and individuals to choose from, but they used their field staff to identify 16 people who had a shared ideology about community activism, and who had demonstrated a commitment and a desperation to do something positive in the face of  war.


 “We have many people working who are not like the ones you see at this training,” explained a staff member. “We chose them not based on their skills, or level of importance in their communities, but on their commitment to this process.”


The lesson here for the practitioner is the need for a rigorous screening process for participant selection. Staff must spend time identifying and preparing individuals who will participate in the training. While self selection/volunteerism may seem like a more democratic means of choosing participants, it might not lead to the success of a carefully selected group who has proven through their actions a commitment to learning the skills.


CHF did not leave these choices in the hands of one person. Favoritism, patronage and other personal issues could thwart the process. Instead the entire staff worked together to decide on the participants who would have the greatest impact.



Gender sensitivity


CHF International aimed for a gender balance in their CAGs. While there isn’t a 50/50 representational split, there are female members in all of the CAGs throughout Iraq.  Almost one third of the participants in the training were women.


The challenge for the training, and the CAGs isn’t the presence of women, but their equal participation in the process. During the training women spoke in each of the sessions, sometimes, more than the men, however, it was clear that their roles in society were subordinate to men. During several exercises in which we explored the extent to which women had a role in decision making at the community level, there was a great discrepancy in perceptions. The men stated that women were equal, but noted that they also needed to be protected. Many of the women believed differently. They felt that their opinions were not weighted as seriously as their male counterparts.


One afternoon my co-facilitator and I met alone with all the women from the training to discuss any concerns they had. I opened the meeting with my admiration, explaining how strong they were. One laughed and explained to me, “We may be strong in this classroom, but when we get back to our homes, we can’t be strong at all.” They went on to explain that many of them had to ask permission from all of the male members of their families to travel to the training, as it is unusual for a woman to travel alone in Iraq. Some of the women, they reported, had been banned from the training by their husbands.


The gender discrepancies in perception and experiences created a challenge for me as the trainer. I was careful not to overstep boundaries, or purport my personal ideas on gender equality. At the same time, I knew that empowering the women to have more equal footing was critical to the success of the project.


I didn’t make huge strides on this problem, but I identified one small solution. When it came time for the participants to practice teaching the skills they had learned, my co-facilitator and I paired men and women together and asked them to team teach. We explained that they both had to speak, and suggested they divide the training topics evenly between them. This ensured women’s participation and secured their role to co-lead the trainings back in their communities. My hope was that they would be seen by their fellow community members as a strong, trusted and capable persons, regardless of their gender.


There are four pertinent lessons for a gender component that practitioner can apply to a similar situation: The first point is to include in the training exercises that relate directly to gender equality in post-conflict settings. These exercises should occur several days into the training, after trust has been established between the trainers and the participants. The nature of the exercises should be exploratory, not didactic. In other words, participants should have the opportunity to share their ideas without necessarily coming to a conclusion. The goal is to exchange opinions without alienating any of the participants. One example of this approach is an exercise called “Cross the Line.” In this session, I asked participants to stand in the middle of the room. I read the statement, “women community members have the same opportunities and voice as men to decide on infrastructural projects at the community level.” I then asked those who agreed to go to the right side of the room, and those who disagreed to go to the left side. Participants were asked to place themselves in the room based on the strength of their belief. For example, if a person strongly agreed, s/he would stand towards the far wall. I then facilitated a discussion between participants about the issue. The trainer should be very careful here, asking probing questions if necessary, while remaining completely neutral.


The second lesson for the practitioner is to schedule some time to meet with the women alone. This should be done in the second half of the training, when women feel comfortable enough to share their opinions candidly. The purpose of the meeting should be to check in and ensure that they are receiving what they need in the training to take back to their communities, and to ascertain what additional tools and/or training they need to be supported. When I met with the women, they were much more verbal, open and expressive than they were in front of their male counterparts. They explained that many of them had struggled greatly to get permission to attend the training, and noted that in their villages, they do not wield the same power (even as CAG members) as the men. They were explicit with their needs, and unanimously agreed on their desire for training on women’s human rights.


The third lesson is that at least one of the trainers should be female. While this poses a challenge for the male participants, it is extremely important for the group as a whole. It allows women the opportunity to feel connected and open, and it requires that the male participants view women as figures of authority. To that end, it is crucial that the female trainer respect the cultural mores and traditions of the culture. This pertains to dress, behaviors, and actions. A good example is a mistake my colleague made on the first day of the training. During our first interactive exercise, participants began speaking to each other out of turn. My colleague put her finger to her lips and said, “Shhhhh.” The room fell silent, and the men immediately glared. We realized something had gone wrong. She was wise, and asked if she had done something inappropriate. One of the Mukhtars said, “That is something you do to small children. A woman should never do that to a grown man.” She apologized profusely, and we were both careful not to do it again.


The fourth lesson pertains to the follow up to the training. Without setting guidelines for men and women to partner as trainers, it is easy to run the risk excluding women from the training process. After meeting with the women, it occurred to me that if we didn’t establish guidelines, they might not be invited to teach the skills to their communities. We decided to establish male and female teams during the training to ensure an equal role for women in the process.


The gender component in post-conflict settings is fundamental to the process. The point, particularly for trainers from another culture, is to be exploratory and non-judgmental when addressing gender equality directly, and to ensure that there are systems or guidelines in place to support equal participation.



Peer Teaching


CHF International’s goal for the training was ambitious, to say the least. The staff wanted CAG members to learn negotiation and mediation skills, and to then teach these skills in their communities. This required us to dedicate three days of the training to a practicum, in which participants developed their own curriculum and then practiced teaching it to their peers. The practitioner should note that this ideally requires five full days at least. We had only three days (after losing one day due to the terrorist attack), and therefore asked participants to work together in the evenings. This extra time allowed for a closer bond between participants. The women reported that they had a very unusual opportunity to sit together with the men in an informal setting for the first time.


The most important aspect of the practicum is that the participants design the training themselves. We asked them as a group to decide how many sessions they should teach, and what the topic of each should be. They chose three topics: an introduction to conflict resolution, skills in resolving conflicts, and negotiation techniques.


Participants spent one full day in the class, and two evenings developing hour-long curricula for each session. It was essential that the material, and the way it was presented came from the participants. As trainers, we worked with them to modify some of their ideas, but the curriculum came from them and was based on what they had learned and practiced during the first several days.


The final two days were dedicated to practice teaching. Each pair was asked to facilitate 20 minutes of the session they would teach in their communities. The trainers, and their peers gave them constructive criticism. The sessions were compiled into a workbook and distributed to the participants before they left the training.


A few key lessons for practitioners became clear to me from this experience. First is the need for the practicum itself, particularly the peer teaching. Knowing that the CAG members would have to perform in front of their peers added a certain intensity and dedication to the process. While some participants seemed a nervous about performing in front of their peers, the constructive criticism each pair received was extremely valuable. It afforded them the opportunity to learn from each other and to receive pointers from the trainers.


The other key to the practicum is to ensure that participants develop the curricula themselves. The participants were able to hone in on the specific skills and techniques that they believed mattered most in their communities. They changed some of the examples, and incorporated some of their own ice-breakers and activities. This process allowed them to learn the skills better, internalize them, and fit them into a cultural context that worked for their specific communities.


There was a need for more time, however, in the process. It would be beneficial to consider spending at least two days, practicing, allowing participants to practice teaching, and refine the curricula several times.



Time on the Ground


The unpredictability of conflict settings makes planning difficult.  Flexibility is essential, but more importantly, it is necessary meet with the local staff for at least one day prior to the training, and each evening. I learned this lesson soon after landing in Irbil. We were told that many of the participants could not get out of Baghdad, and the training would be pushed up by one day. We decided to use this day to go through every facet of the training with the staff, and in hind sight, it was the best thing that could have happened to us. Despite the fact that the staff had already seen the training manual, (we sent it to them and the translators prior to the training), there were many ideas and skills that needed to be modified to fit within the cultural context. We went through it carefully, and made the changes on the spot. When I asked why they hadn’t told us before, they replied that did not want to offend us. It became clear in that moment that face to face contact and an open (and repeated) invitation for constructive criticism was the best way to ensure that the content fit the participants’ needs.



Part III: Conclusion


What happened after the training?


When the participants left the training, the commitment was clearly there, but the applicability of the tools we shared was questionable to me. Could they really go back and use them immediately? What would happen if their communities were attacked? How could they progress with their plans for training when each day was uncertain?


Within six months each of the pairs had completed their three presentations to their fellow community members. All of the CAGS moved to the second phase of the program, using USAID funds for health and income generating initiatives. CHF has hired a full time training specialist whose job is it is to support CAG members in teaching these skills to their peers and utilizing them in their communities. They have also published a training manual of the curricula the CAG members developed, and have shared it with other CAGs throughout Iraq.



Is Teaching Conflict Resolution in Times of War Effective?


The extent to which conflict resolution skills can help people in the midst of war is depends on two points: First, there must be a practical and immediate situation in which to apply the skills. In the case of the CAGs, they had specific community projects, and the funding to implement them. The skills they were learning had immediate applicability. Second, the individuals chosen must be selected on the basis of an ideological commitment. Many CAGs were not chosen to participate. CHF carefully selected CAGs and individuals who had demonstrated a commitment and belief that they had the power to do something in their communities. This belief fuelled the collective, and energized them in a way that is contrary to what one would expect to see during a time of war.


The keys to making the training effective are: a practicum and time on the ground with the staff before and throughout the training. Including gender equality as a component of the training is critical, but should not be taught. Rather, the concept should be explored, and the follow up, (in this case the community training), must be structured in a way that promotes power-sharing between men and women.


In the last hour of the training, we stood up and asked for a few minutes to share how grateful we were to them for their commitment, openness to us and for their amazing strength. We could barely get the words out, when one by one, the participants stepped forward with gifts, flowers, cards they had made to thank us. We were shocked by it all. The highest ranking village chief pulled off two rings from his own hand and gave them to us. My translator, surprised by this act of generosity, leaned over to me and explained that this is this is one of the highest forms of honor in Iraq. It was the only moment in two weeks in which I was utterly speechless.


They had opened me up to a new culture, a new way of thinking and to the reminder that where there is tragedy one can always find hope. We had come to Iraq with the goal of  helping people there, and realized that we received far more than we gave.. My translator told me that since the war began in Iraq when people leave each other they have replaced “goodbye” with “be safe.” I realized in this moment, as they each left for their respective communities, where simply getting home put them in danger, how much I meant those words.


The bottom line for the practitioner working on conflict resolution in times of war is that it is timely, relevant and essential. The commitment and urgency make the skills more valuable than they would be during peaceful times. Given the right people, conditions and the opportunity for follow up, it can truly make a difference in the development of individuals lives and the communities in which they live.


By Elisa Levy, M.A.