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Dictatorship Without a Dictator: Iraq 20 Years After the Invasion

Two decades after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statues in Baghdad and the dawn of a new, democratic era in modern Iraq, debate continues to swirl: what went wrong? The optimistic views professed by the United States and its allies as the invasion proceeded were slowly exposed as just that—fanciful projections. 20 years later, Iraq is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Militias boast greater power than the state’s security forces. Public services have deteriorated to appalling levels, leading to widespread demonstrations against the government and a sense of general restlessness among unemployed youth. But the story of Iraq since that fateful day in March 2003 is not only a story of an invasion gone awry. It is a tapestry woven by an incompetent, opportunistic, myopic, and divided political elite that represents the different centers of power throughout the country—a ruling class that has consistently chosen its own narrow interests over those of the people they represent.

Sunni Sins

At the moment when Iraq was to celebrate its first elections after decades of dictatorship, the Sunni elite refused to participate, eventually embarking on a violent campaign to overturn the new status quo. The most popular Sunni political entity, the Association of Muslim Scholars, called to boycott the 2005 elections, dismissing them as illegitimate. Subsequently, Sunni militants erected roadblocks and checkpoints that brutally punished those that had voted in the elections. What was considered by many Sunnis as legitimate resistance against an electoral process conducted under foreign occupation was in reality a sectarian and a parochial militant perspective that did not consider Kurdish or Shia support for the new political paradigm. The Sunni militant view reflected in the decision to boycott the 2005 election had absorbed many disparate ideologies, which ranged from simple nationalism to terrorist Islamism. It was a bizarre marriage, considering that former Baathists and Islamic State fighters had come to share the same bed. Not only did the Sunni resistance pervert the spirit of nationalism, but it also became a hired gun for Syria and Iran to thwart U.S.-led efforts to build a stable political system in Iraq—all in the name of removing U.S. occupying forces from the country.

After the election proceeded without the inclusion of Sunni voices, the so-called resistance slowly dissolved and the Sunni elite was integrated into the political system. Yet, its early repudiation of inclusive democracy served as a prelude to the myopic interests that have dominated elite Iraqi politics since the earliest days of the country’s democratic experiment. Ironically, Sunni politicians have failed in even addressing the issue of millions of internally displaced Sunnis who lost their homes and livelihoods because of the Islamic State. They even failed to bring to justice those that killed 12,000 Sunnis who were kidnapped during the conflict against the terrorist group. Instead, the Sunni elite has poured its energy into the recurring battle to claim the “representation” of their fellows to get the Sunni-slice from the government through corruption. In reality, Sunni politicians and officials are more interested in winning elections than meeting the needs of their constituents.

Impairing the Kurdish Cause

Although the Kurdish political parties in post-invasion Iraq tell a different tale, they too have corrupted the hopes of Iraqi Kurds for their own financial and political benefit. The Kurdish aspiration of separating from Iraq is as old as Iraqi statehood itself. From a Kurdish perspective, the 2003 invasion and the toppling of the Baathist party presented a golden opportunity to realize that dream. Federalist notions of divided government were enshrined in the state’s constitution, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was formally recognized. The KRG received a share of the national budget and signed many deals with oil companies to increase its revenue. The inhabitants of Kirkuk, a province whose governance remains contested between Baghdad and the KRG, would be offered an independence referendum. That vote was consistently delayed.

However, the Kurdish leadership used and abused the aspirations for independence as a vehicle for legitimacy. As such, it has become the primary source of Kurdish suffering through rampant corruption. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) enshrined nepotism and “a weak bureaucratic governance system.” Despite widespread protests in KRG-administered provinces in 2011, 2017, and 2020, the KDP and PUK continued to play their corrupt political game. To cover up their actions, KDP and PUK began targeting journalists who would otherwise expose their abuses. Many reporters in Kurdistan received threats, underwent torture, and were subjected to harassment by KRG forces. In 2021 alone, there were 353 recorded violations committed against 260 journalists within Kurdistan. Clearly the interest of the Kurdish elite has diverged from the interest of the people it governs.

Shia Self-Preservation

The Shia elite, on the other hand, has justified its existence by citing the brutal legacy of Baathism. 20 years after the demise of Saddam, Shia politicians and leaders have mobilized their followers, defended minimal improvements in well-being, and continued violence against “the other” in Iraqi society by recalling the former leader’s brutality and fostering a sense of Shia victimhood. It is apparently lost on most Shia politicians that most Iraqi youth were born after 2003, having never tasted the tyranny of the former dictator.

Despite their consistent talk of uplifting the downtrodden, Shia political parties and militias alike have transformed into victimizers themselves. The killing of demonstrators in 2019 was perpetrated by militias claiming to protect the interest of the Shia. The targeting of journalists and political activists alike has prevented the exposure of their malpractice. In addition, the Shia militias consistently urge Shia youth to fight for unholy causes. Some of the young Iraqi Shia have become little more than cannon fodder used to defend the Assad regime in Syria, and continue to be part of Iran’s strategy to exert influence in Iraq. This is, of course, beside the activities of drug smugglers that have skyrocketed in recent years, tearing Shia provinces apart from within.

The current dreadful conditions in Iraq beg the question: would developments in Iraq have changed if the United States had engineered a different political system in the country? Despite the chorus of justified criticism leveled at the U.S. occupation and administration of Iraq, it is doubtful that Iraq would have transformed into a liberal democracy if sounder policies were pursued in Washington. Most, if not all, of the Iraqi political parties lack a truly nationalist, i.e. holistic, plan to reform the country, let alone generate a cross-sectarian following. The transition from dictatorship to democracy is rarely, if ever, a smooth process. Iraq is no exception to this tendency, and the difficult compromises required to bring about stability, transparency, and true representation remain elusive.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Dr. Massaab Al-Aloosy is a Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a researcher focusing on Iraq, Iran, and Shia non-state armed groups. He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School-Tufts University and is the author of The Changing Ideology of Hezbollah, Palgrave 2020.

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