A chronology of failure in 'liberated' Iraq

A chronology of failure in 'liberated' Iraq
Comment: Little did Iraqis know that transition away from tyranny would rest on wedding the political system to Iraq's religious institutions, writes Nazli Tarzi.
6 min read
24 Mar, 2017
Moqtada al-Sadr and leaders of the PMU give a press conference in Najaf [AFP]

"Freedom gone wrong is the portrait of Iraq after 2003. Expectations do not stack-up against realities," said Imad Salim, a 25-year-old unemployed medical graduate from Baghdad.

Post-Baathist Iraq has spawned weak governance and hostile political blocs unable to unite under a common vision - particularly in the run up to Iraq's presidential election next year.

Religious elites thrust into power by the US have shown avowed loyalty to the ethnicised political system the American occupiers planted during their uninvited stay.

Securing US backing meant forfeiting popular support. The vacuum empowered religiously affiliated groups, ordained by God, in their view, to become political actors.

Iraq's post-2003, American-vetted constitution ensured this by elevating Islam, and making it the source of all national law.

Then-US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, said that the "new Iraq" should be secular, but later conceded that this goal was unrealistic as the state acquired an Islamic identity.

Democracy, he said, will "not always be a smooth road" and "trial and error and experimentation will be part of the process". Fourteen years after the invasion, pundits are no longer discussing the prospect of democracy - but rather its failure.

When Bush scribbled the words 'let freedom reign' in response to his government's transfer of power back to Iraq, was the rise of religious henchmen really the intended outcome?

Turbaned men coalesced into political parties and militias, and, protected by faith, openly rejected the separation of religion from other spheres of life. Its interference was now mandatory, not to mention holy.

Parties continue to deploy religious imagery and mythology to strike a chord with the people, promising rewards in the afterlife. Their "men of God" rhetoric has been watered down by consistent failures, however, in the form of their monopolistic controls - political and economic - and absent public services. 

Failure, it seems, has become an unending tragedy. Regime change, Bush claimed, was the only means of "removing a great danger" America faced.

Instead, it inaugurated an Islamic state, other than the one occupying swathes of land in north-western Iraq.

The revival of political religiosity

The de facto rule of religious groups is also symbolically present. Iraq's physical landscape - particularly in urban Shia militia strongholds - has become awash with religious symbols, flags of artists' rendering of Imam Hussein and Ali. Religiously named streets and neighbours similarly mirror this ideological shift, from the top down.

In the same spirit, the Iraqi statue of Abu Nawas mysteriously lost his drinking cup several years ago. Responsibility for the defacement was not claimed by any side, but it seems that the threat Abu Nawas and his cup posed to religious groups had to be eradicated so as to not contradict their Islamized order.  

These efforts have not gone unchallenged, however.

Read more: Iraq: The legacy of a disastrous invasion lives on

A street sign in Basra, renamed by Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces after Ayatollah Khomeini was vandalised just months after it was erected. An activist from Basra who requested anonymity said that "acts of this kind are tolerated by a select few, while ordinary people contest them, for cheapening our faith, and selling our country on the cheap to Iran."

A month ago, threats were also levelled at the director of antiquities in Babil, by an unnamed militia, for allowing the colosseum of the ancient city to host musical concerts and cultural activities. The flame of cultural life, despite these threats, continues to burn brightly.

When Bush scribbled the words "let freedom reign" in response to his government's transfer of power back to Iraq, was the rise of religious henchmen really the intended outcome?

Mafia state

The reign of the militias - despite their incorporation into Iraq's security apparatus last year - has weakened the resolve of the state, which is now unable to protect teachers, doctors, civilians and anyone else on the receiving end of militia violence.

Nadia Faydh, a former English literature teacher at Mustansiriya University, described the lack of constraints on religious groups in educational settings.

"Some of the students that belong to militia groups see no problem in entering university grounds bearing arms, or using their status to secure exemption from exams or days off," she said.

The sound of religious music now fills school playgrounds where Iraq's national anthem was sung daily

The sound of religious music now fills school playgrounds where Iraq's national anthem was sung daily, and school uniforms have been exchanged for strict religious garb.

Similar changes can be read across the post-2003 national curriculum. As one teacher from Baghdad said: "The new curriculum downplays the once exaggerated nationalist aspects to inflate religious ones."

A memorandum published by the Ministry of Higher Education last year, ruled that post-graduation celebrations must have clerical backing in the form of a fatwa.

"Clerics now have a hand in managing university life. This very document exposes the emptiness of government's secular rhetoric. The dominance of clerics is a fact of life. Wilayat al-Fiqh exists in practice, we can say" Faydh added.

The most infamous outcome of all in the education sector has been the state's failure to prevent the downwards slide into illiteracy.

The grip of religious mafias tightens daily, but silence and complicity keeps them firmly in position

Failure has also crept into public hospitals, "where competency ranks second to religion" junior doctor Saif Assad told The New Arab over the phone.

He said that militia rule is widely felt, and that "you need not look further than those occupying positions of power. Directors of health, whether it’s Jasab al-Hajjami or Abdulghani Saadi, are both committed members of the Sadrist movement. They do not take instructions from the ministry but from their commanders. This is a conflict I can testify to."

Sliding away from democracy

While Rumsfeld cited "institutions of self-government" as the key to "a successful transition from tyranny to self-reliance", little did Iraq know that the new alliance would rest on wedding the political system to Iraq's religious institutions.

The aggressive conservatism their practices revive has done little to provide public services or feed the impoverished.

"Reassurance of God in times of crisis is not enough," Salim said, in grave disappointment over what has become of Iraq.

The glaring irony, he added, is that "democracy in the West denies religious organisations political leverage. If they don't accept it for themselves, why is it okay for us"?

Fourteen years on, the challenges are many - but the failures are excessive.

Nazli Tarzi is a freelance British-Iraqi journalist, specialising in Middle East politics, with a particular interest in Iraqi affairs. Follow her on Twitter @NazliTarzi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.