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Iraq's lost two decades after the US invasion

The Iraq Report: Iraq's lost two decades after the US invasion
7 min read
16 March, 2023
As Iraq marks 20 years since the US invasion, the effects continue to be felt in the political instability, corruption, and sectarian violence plaguing the country.

Yet another grim anniversary approaches for Iraqis to commemorate, as the 20th year since the United States and its so-called “Coalition of the Willing” launched an unsanctioned invasion of Iraq comes to a close.

The invasion triggered a chain reaction of events that can be felt to this day, including broader global disarray and a marked weakening of the “rules-based” international order that had held sway since the end of the Cold War.

But the impact the war had domestically is what Iraqis feel most acutely today. Two decades since then-US President George W Bush decided to ignore international consensus and the international order his country was a key architect and patron of, Iraqis have faced nothing short of a lost generation.

Not only did they not get the freedom they were promised, but the shackles of tyranny and the constant threat of violence have increased exponentially since the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist dictatorship in 2003.

Oil rich but still impoverished

Two days before the invasion began on 19 March 2003, President Bush issued an ultimatum to Saddam, stating that he and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours or face military action. In the same speech, Bush said: “We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free.”

By all objective economic metrics, Iraq is far from prosperous. According to figures from the World Bank, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, Iraq’s GDP plummeted to -36.7 percent.

In 2004, and after a heavy influx of American cash to support the new regime, GDP hit 53.4 percent, but this swiftly dropped to 1.7 percent and has stagnated every since, apart from a severe contraction of -11.3 percent in 2020 during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic.

At the start of this year, the Iraqi government declared that a quarter of the population – some 11 million people – live below the poverty line, with indications that the problem could be even worse than that due to difficulties in accurate reporting.

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The country has consistently ranked amongst the most corrupt countries on the planet, with Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index regularly placing Iraq at the top of its table of the most corrupt political systems.

The extent of the theft of Iraq’s treasury was given a brief and uncharacteristic spotlight at the highest levels of government when former President Barham Salih revealed in 2021 that an eye-watering $150 billion of oil revenues had been pilfered since 2003.

This admission was seen as a dire indictment of the entire political process, a system of patronage and nepotism where parties vied for parliamentary seats and control of ministries not to serve the people, but to profit off them.

It also comes against a backdrop of political and sectarian violence that seeks to cement political control over the aspirations of the Iraqi people, with deadly consequences to all who object or dissent.

A US marine points his rifle at a building as it burns in the city of Fallujah, on 14 November 2004. [Getty]

When the October 2019 protest movement began, the government’s response was to use violence to repress the demonstrations and to turn a blind eye to the extreme violence deployed by politicians who also control powerful sectarian militias and enjoy the backing of regional powers such as Iran. Iran-sponsored militias even deployed snipers and used deadly live fire to quell the protests.

Despite numerous promises to investigate the violence and hold those responsible accountable, Human Rights Watch has confirmed that this has not happened as of their last World Report in 2022.

This follows a pattern of broken promises to investigate state abuse of power, including potential war crimes perpetrated by government forces and state-backed irregular militias during the war against the Islamic State (IS) group between 2014 and 2017.

In addition to this endemic violence and insecurity, the Iraqi public’s perception of extreme corruption and a total lack of accountability was a direct cause behind the 2021 general election’s all-time low turnout of 36 percent (later revised by the electoral commission to 43 percent – a figure that has been questioned).

State-sponsored sectarianism and divisional politics

While the international community, and especially the US, have stayed relatively quiet on the abuses perpetrated by their new allies in Baghdad, it is not only here that their promises to Iraqis were broken. As a direct result of the invasion, sectarianism is now an unavoidable fact of modern Iraq’s socio-political fabric, even if regular Iraqis disapprove of it and its destructive effects on their country.

The reason for this is systemic rather than a social predisposition. With the invasion and the toppling of Saddam’s government came a new order, guaranteed by American force of arms and with the stated intention of guaranteeing the participatory rights of all of Iraq’s major ethno-sectarian communities: the Shia Arabs, the Sunni Arabs, and the Sunni Kurds.

What came to be known as muhasasa was hard-wired into the nascent political process. The high seats of public office were divided up along ethno-sectarian lines, with the offices of prime minister, president and parliamentary speaker apportioned to the Shia, Kurds, and Sunnis respectively.

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This divvying up of political power along confessional lines all but ensured that each of Iraq’s major demographics would vote according to their own communities and, rather than reducing communal tensions, had the adverse effect of deepening them and causing each major group to become factionalised and inherently mistrustful of those who ought to have been considered their fellow countrymen.

This can be easily seen and is reflected in the changing attitudes of Iraqis over the past two decades. Where some Iraqis welcomed the invasion in 2003, believing it to be an end to tyranny, they instead found that the oppression they faced became compounded.

In a now well-known interview with the BBC, an Iraqi mechanic told the story of how he welcomed the invading American forces as they entered Baghdad ostensibly as liberators on 9 April 2003. He was so elated that he even took a sledgehammer to the statue of Saddam Hussein that was later pulled down by an American armoured vehicle.

However, and 13 years later when he was interviewed again by international outlets, he expressed regret at his actions and publicly wished for Saddam’s return, famously stating that Iraqis “now had a Saddam on every street corner”, in reference to the state of gangsterism that has taken over his country.

US troops enter Baghdad, drape a US flag over and topple a statue of Saddam Hussein on 9 April 2003. [Getty]

Arguably, things have gotten far worse since 2013, and by several orders of magnitude – and not just in Iraq. With the total failure of the US and its allies to deliver what they promised the Iraqi people, and with a trail of destruction left in their wake, came regional reverberations that can be seen in sectarian conflict in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and in restive areas of the Arab Gulf, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Internationally, this has led to other rising powers like Russia and China to cite America’s complete disregard for the United Nations and other instruments of the international order who opposed the war in Iraq whenever they want to justify their own destabilising and destructive actions.

The view is that the US is not in any position to be moralising about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or Chinese actions in Hong Kong and elsewhere after it ignored the international consensus and the UN Security Council, hence making the war illegal by international law, as confirmed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

While the immoral actions of one state should not form a justification for the immoral actions of others, the US had a unique position as the world’s unipolar hegemon and it was a key architect behind the international order it went on to undermine by not only invading Iraq, but also leaving it in the state it is in today.

International support for Iraq to become a stable, independent country that respects the wishes of its people would go some way to reversing the regional quagmire afflicting the Middle East and also restoring faith in the international system.

However, with the current roster of politicians ruling the country, and the incessant meddling in Iraq’s affairs from the likes of Iran and the US, that solution appears to be a long way away.

The reality is that Iraq has lost two decades and an entire generation to war, corruption and misery.

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

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