The reshaping of Iraq

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 16 Apr 2024

Two decades after the US invasion, Iraq is forging ahead on a new journey that may risk throwing the country into the unknown.

The reshaping of Iraq
Shia pilgrims paying homage at Imam Hussein shrine in Kerbala

 

Last Tuesday marked the 21st anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

More than two decades on, a “new Iraq” propagated by the occupiers and their Iraqi partners has not come true, and the war-torn country now faces daunting stability challenges.

There was no commemoration to mark the anniversary by the authorities in Baghdad and it went largely unnoticed by Iraqis who remained preoccupied with dealing with the fallout from the occupation.

But the celebrations of Eid Al-Fitr, the festival at the end of the holy month of Ramadan which coincided with the war anniversary, gave some political leaders an opportunity to reflect on life in Iraq as it moved into the third decade after the invasion.

In his remarks on the occasion, Ammar Al-Hakim, whose Shia political faction was among the key US allies in the invasionand has since remained influential in Iraq’s politics, admitted that the country was at an “impasse.”

Al-Hakim called for a high-level meeting of national leaders to review the “political experiment” and make “crucial decisions to correct the structural mistakes behind the deadlock which has long been hindering and obscuring the state’s rebuilding.”

While it is the kind of empty rhetoric that characterises Iraqi politicians’ posturing, Al-Hakim’s critical assessmentof the post-invasion era indicated its staggering failures and their impacts on Iraqis.

Since 2003, Iraq has remained at the bottom of most world development indices, such as those measuring poor governance, corruption, political uncertainty, health, the environment, education, criminality, and freedom of expression.

For the last two years, Iraq has ranked 154 in the Global Peace Index, a composite Index on the peacefulness of countries made up of 23 quantitative and qualitative indicators.

To try to better understand Iraq’s malaise, thiswriter visited Baghdad and several other Iraqi cities on the eve of the 21st anniversary of the US invasion when insiders could indicate what has gone wrong over these transitional years.

The impressions takenfrom the trip and field research are unmistakably damning. Normalcy has not been restored, and true peace has not been reestablished in the beleaguered nation.

Many Iraqis interviewed during the tour including those in the Shia heartland of Najaf and Kerbela said that they experience stress, worry, anger, sadness, and physical pain coping with day-to-day hardships.

Several daunting challenges stand out that leave Iraq dangerously exposed, while the feel-good factor favoured by Iraq’s ruling elites remains elusive.

At the core of Iraq’s intractable problems lies the ongoing political disarray that has left the country in the spiral of a political system created to serve a sectarian kleptocracy and its vested interests.

While the country’s political clans have used their power to control the government, security forces, and judiciary, Iraq’s leaders have immersed themselves in many types of corrupt practices.

To illustrate the volume of the corruption in Iraq, ex-finance minister Ali Allawi told a local television on 1 April that large amounts of wealth were accumulated by people in power through embezzling state resources.

Allawi, who resigned from the former government and left Iraq for exile in the UK, disclosed that at least 30 multibillionaires have emerged among Iraqi politicians since 2003, suggesting that they are using their positions to get money.

A major example Iraqis put forward as evidence of their politicians’ corruption is the unregulated and unmonitored money scattered at investment projects entrusted to dodgy wealth-creating arms across the country.

Behind all this enormous business, Iraqis say, lurk powerful militias that provide the muscle and take their cut of the cash and natural resources in what are largely known as “conflict resources,” exploiting the state’s fragility and instability to extract revenues.

In the Iraqi context, control of the land, oil, water, state coffers and donations generated at the Shia holy shrines have made political groups powerful and wealthy, leading to internecine conflicts and community tensions.

Paying an average monthly salary of 2,240,000 ID, or $1,500, jobs in the government controlled by the ruling factions are common methods to buy loyalty.

One of the staggering results of such loyalty perks, which include hefty salaries for former associates of the ruling factions, is the increasing income disparity and social inequality in the country that has created an economic system led by the political clans and their wealthy partners.

The consequences are wide-ranging and also play an important role in maintaining national instability, as militia groups continue to provide a red flag for private businesses and individuals.

The thirst for graft and easy money has even reached civilsociety groups and staff working for the UN in Iraq, some of them entrusted with combating corruption efforts.

In January, the UK newspaper the Guardian reported that employees at a UN Development Programme (UNDP) scheme were involved in demanding bribes in return for helping businessmen win contracts in Iraq.

Narrowing this down to ordinary Iraqis, most are forced to pay bribes to finish paperwork or receive public services, making them contend that corruption, or publicsector looting, is a far greater enemy to their welfare than threats coming from terrorism or sectarianism.

One of the consequences of the elite corruption and government inefficacy is the failure to deliver adequate public services such as electricity, water, sewage, education and quality healthcare, often due to the crumbling infrastructure resulting from the misappropriation of public resources.

Though terrorism threats have largely been minimised, the security situation throughout Iraq remains volatile because of communal violence, including routine tribal clashes, murders, kidnappings and drug-trafficking that fuels criminality.

The murky security environment caused by the weak rule of law and the lack of good governance can be traced in narratives told by locals about fears of insecurity, especially by those not protected by political connections, militias, or tribes.

There are multiple other problems resulting from the government’s incompetence, such as environmental malpractices that are increasingly turning the fertile land between the two rivers into a desert and the unbridled influx of foreign workers that is draining Iraq’s foreign currency.

On a broader scale, Iraqis are eager to live in a normal country where claims of political stability boasted of by the ruling elites are translated into reality on the ground. While the Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish divide remains deep-rooted, political polarisation inside each group is clearly evident everywhere.

Any insider touring Iraq these days can easily note that most Iraqis are tired of the communal divisions and would like to see a sustainable national accord in order to stem the country’s collapse.

One major concern raised by many Iraqis, including Shias from the holy cities of Najaf, Kerbela, and Kadhimiya during the tour,was about their country becoming increasingly part of Iran’s sphere of influence.

A broader look at Iraq today shows that the Islamic Republic holdsde facto power over Iraq’s key political, security, economic and religious fields via interventionist policies and Shia proxies.

But Iran’s powerful presence in Iraq has surpassed these various political forms and the socio-economic objectives of attrition and exhaustion to become a model of semi-colonial control and domination that provokes indignation and stirs Iraqi nationalism.

All in all, the trip to Iraq on the 21st anniversary of the USwar was an enlightening experience that showed that the post-invasion ruling class has gone into overdrive, using any means available to reshape the country in its image.

It is not clear that this class will ultimately succeed, but as it marches on it will continue to subdue Iraqis, pillage their national wealth, and try to irrevocably restructure the Iraqi polity.

That will usher in the end of Iraq as the Iraqis would have wished to rebuild it after it was destroyed by the US invasion as a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous country for all its citizens.

 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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