The Iraq Report: 15 years of failure

The Iraq Report: 15 years of failure
Far from spreading seeds of democracy, the US-led invasion of Iraq, 15 years ago, allowed dangerous forces to supplant the previous Baathist dictatorship.
9 min read
20 March, 2018
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This week marks the 15-year anniversary since the United States led a devastating and destructive invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Iraq war has come to be one of the defining conflicts of our time, with many of the problems in today's news being linked in some way to then-US President George W. Bush's decision to dismantle an already isolated and contained dictatorship, destroying the country it ruled over in the process and sending shockwaves throughout the world that are still felt today.

In this week's special edition of "The Iraq Report", The New Arab will assess Iraq 15 years after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship and the United States' exportation of democracy. Has that democracy succeeded? Are Iraqis safer since the invasion? What is the state of the rights of women and children? Read on to find out.

Do Iraqis have a functioning democracy?

Although the United States and its allies - primarily the United Kingdom under Tony Blair - made false claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and were supporting terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda, another of their stated objectives was to liberate Iraqis from the yoke of the Baathists and to transition Iraq from dictatorship to democracy.

The foundations of this ideological determination to export democracy to Iraq comes from the Iraq Liberation Act signed into law in 1998 by then-President Bill Clinton. The act declared that it was US policy to enact "regime change" and that it would support Iraqi opposition groups to destabilise the Baathist regime. These groups included Kurdish separatists, as well as pro-Iran Shia Islamist organisations such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Following 9/11, these opposition groups were summoned by Washington and hosted in London's Paddington Hilton, months before the invasion, to declare their support for the imminent military campaign to excise Baathism from Iraq. These opposition groups also declared their readiness to support a US-imported democracy in Iraq, despite many of them lacking democratic credentials of their own.

After the invasion, the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) was set up under the supervision of Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head and US military governor of Iraq, Paul Bremer. The IGC was mostly comprised of Shia Islamists, Kurdish separatists and others who had worked to provide legitimacy for the US invasion of their own country, and this also included pro-Iran parties who were the biggest winners following the occupation despite American and Iranian animosity to one another.

In the 2005 elections - the first of its kind in Iraq - Shia Islamist parties came out on top, and eventually led to the premiership of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from the Dawa Party, a Shia Islamist party with ties to Tehran that has ruled Iraq ever since. Under Maliki, sectarian policies designed to marginalise Sunni Arabs and distance them from political, economic and military power were initiated. This included a widening of the CPA's so-called "de-Baathification" law, and the introduction of anti-terrorism laws that were so vague as to enable authorities to designate the relative of a terror suspect as a terrorist themselves, leading to grave human rights abuses.

Many Iraqis began to lose faith in the political process, and with sectarian cleansing and marginalisation continuing throughout Iraq.

These policies also served to provide cover for the activities of extremist sectarian militias - including the Badr Organisation and the Mahdi Army, both linked to powerful Shia clerics - who acted as death squads. These death squads targeted academics, people accused of being former regime officials, as well as civilians based on their sectarian identity, with a Channel 4 investigation revealing links between extremist militias and politicians.

Many Iraqis began to lose faith in the political process, and with sectarian cleansing and marginalisation continuing throughout Iraq, with many Iraqis turning to the armed resistance against not only US troops, but also the Iraqi politicians and security forces that they deemed to be US and Iranian agents.

The resistance was ultimately derailed by radical actors, including al-Qaeda in Iraq, who were subsequently defeated by former members of the Sunni Arab resistance against US occupation. However, al-Qaeda underwent a metamorphosis and produced today's much-feared Islamic State group, who took advantage of a lack of political engagement and regime sectarian violence to capture a third of Iraq in 2014.

Today, and after the declared defeat of IS and elections being called for May this year, reports have emerged that Iraqi politicians have been buying votes. Political parties linked to pro-Iran candidates have been contracting the services of "vote brokers" who target voters and exploit their economic situation to buy votes with cash or other gifts.

Statues of Saddam Hussein were razed following his downfall in 2003 [Getty]

This clearly has devastating implications for the health and longevity of any kind of notion of an Iraqi democracy, as people's desperation is exploited to buy a "democratic" outcome. That very action undermines the democratic credibility of any election result, and will forever leave a cloud of doubt hanging over the heads of whomever wins the upcoming vote this May, as no one could truly be certain if they represent the people they govern. This is emblematic of the dysfunction of Iraqi democracy, 15 years after Iraqis were promised no more strongmen like Saddam Hussein, but were instead given "1,000 Saddams", as one Iraqi who celebrated the US occupation now laments.

Have human rights improved?

The lack of democracy and public engagement with the political process only served to create tensions that led to armed violence and severe government repression, including rape as a weapon of war, mass executions, and arbitrary arrests and torture. A decade after the US-led invasion, Amnesty International released a damning report that revealed the extent of human rights abuses in post-Saddam Iraq.

While Iraq's new governors were in exile and hiding from the Baathist regime, they were often at pains to point out the endemic use of torture, murder and terror by Saddam and his henchmen against the Iraqi people in order to maintain control. However, and according to Amnesty International and other major international human rights organisations, these parties behaved no differently to the Baathists and were in many cases far worse.

In order to extract confessions for terrorism allegations, Iraqi authorities were revealed to have tortured detainees using methods of torture that include "electric shocks applied to the genitals… partial suffocation by having a bag placed tightly over the head, beatings while suspended in contorted positions…and threats of rape". Female prisoners reported being routinely sexually abused, while confessions were extracted from male detainees by interrogators threatening to or actually raping female relatives. These false confessions led to hundreds of executions, despite the obvious implications of the suspension of the presumption of innocence and the illegality of extracting confessions under duress.

Human Rights Watch released a series of reports since the start of the invasion in 2003, and lamented the deterioration in women's and children's rights in Iraq.

Human Rights Watch released a series of reports since the start of the invasion in 2003, and lamented the deterioration in women's and children's rights in Iraq. HRW said that conservative Shia Islamists had repeatedly attempted to legalise marriage to nine-year-old girls, and that "women and girls had told HRW that insecurity and fear of rape and abduction kept them in their homes, out of schools and away from work". These threats to women's and children's rights have continued to the present day, with Shia Islamists once more tabling a motion to legalise paedophilia against girls as recently as last November.

Human rights have also been forgotten during Iraq's war with IS, with government forces and allied Shia militias routinely committing grave human rights violations and perpetrating what international rights organisations have described as "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity". Atrocities include the abduction of 643 Sunni Arab civilians from Fallujah and the murder and torture of hundreds more in 2016; Shia militias cooking and slicing meat off detainees "like a shawarma"; and torture, rape and extrajudicial killings during the fight for Mosul last year.

Iraq has become a hotbed of pro-government militias [AFP]

The Iraqi regime has had a decade and a half to prove their human rights credentials, but have instead overseen 15 years of brutality, state repression, sexual violence and mass murder. The threat posed by terrorists and war criminals such as IS cannot be used as an excuse to justify similar behaviour from the government and its allies.

What was the regional impact of the invasion?

The devastation inflicted upon Iraq was not only suffered by Iraqis, but also sent shockwaves throughout the region and laid the foundations for many of the problems the Middle East faces today.

Following the collapse of the Baathist dictatorship, the US empowered Iran as the most influential actor in Iraq and even empowered it regionally. Far from predictions that Iraq would become a liberal, secular democracy that would radiate US influence and democratisation into the region, Iraq became a haven for the theocratic ideology that governs Iran.

The Islamic Republic's founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, wanted to export his "Islamic Revolution" across the Muslim world since 1979, but was held in check by a staunchly secularist Baathist Iraq. However, and after the US shattered the Baathists and failed to fill the power vacuum with an alternative, Iranian-inspired Shia Islamism came to fill the void and made Iraq into a bastion of Iranian political, economic and military power, paving the way for Iran to become a major regional shot-caller once more.

Senior Iranian officials have since boasted about re-forging a long lost Persian empire, with Baghdad as its new capital. Iranian forces and agents can be seen influencing events not only in Iraq, but also Yemen, Lebanon and, perhaps most crucially, in Syria. While Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani recently bragged about Iran toppling the Baathists in Iraq, he sees no problem in supporting the Baathists of Syria under President Bashar al-Assad. Iranian support for Assad has directly led to the deaths of approximately half a million Syrians and the displacement of millions more, with Iraqi Shia militias fighting alongside their IRGC commanders and with Iraq itself used as a major hub on Iran's land bridge to the Mediterranean.

While Syria is not the only after-effect of the Iraq war, it is one of the most prominent as it has also been a catalyst for the refugee crisis that has left European politicians at a loss for how to respond, while empowering the far-right's xenophobic discourse and rise to prominence. The Iraq war's effects have clearly reached far beyond the unfortunate country's borders, and many around the world are still reeling from its effects today.


The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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