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The Persistent Disaster of the Iraq Political System

The disastrous state of modern-day Iraq cannot be examined or discussed without acknowledging the role the United States and its allies played in destabilizing the country. Rather than facing this uncomfortable truth, those most responsible for the disaster have tended to absolve themselves of responsibility and place the blame on the Iraqis themselves.

One common opinion among Western officials is blaming Iraqis for the sorry state of the country, and that Iraqis bore the responsibility for failing to get their act together during the two decades since the invasion began. Of course, this argument ignores the fact that Iraq’s current political elite rode into Baghdad on the backs of the tanks of the U.S.-led coalition. Indeed, the entire Iraqi political system itself is a post-invasion construct installed by the U.S.-led with a major role for Iran.

Invaded, then Abandoned

The Iraq of today is not what was promised to Iraqis 20 years ago. 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 [the Iraqi people]…build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free.”

By all objective measures, Iraq is far from prosperous despite being one of the most oil-rich countries in the world. According to figures from the World Bank, immediately after the invasion, Iraq’s GDP plummeted -36.7 percent. After immense sums of American cash flowed into the country to support the new government in 2004, GDP growth hit 53.4 percent, but Iraq’s economy languished; growth dropped to 1.7 percent in 2005 and has stagnated within that range ever since (apart from a severe contraction of -11.3 percent during the pandemic).

Corruption runs rife in Iraq, and the Iraqi people have paid the price of officials’ malfeasance. 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 outcome of such widespread corruption is stark; at the start of this year, the Iraqi planning ministry stated that some 11 million people—a quarter of the population—live below the poverty line.

The extent of the theft of national wealth by the highest levels of Iraq’s government was uncharacteristically exposed by former President Barham Salih in 2021, when he revealed that an eye-watering $150 billion of oil revenues had been pilfered since 2003. In 2014, one of the United States’ key inside men and later Iraq’s minister of oil, Ahmed Chalabi, accused former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of losing $551 billion due to corruption during his time in office. The Iraqi public’s perception of extreme corruption and a total lack of accountability contributed to the 2021 general election’s all-time low turnout of 36 percent.

Political Corruption leads to Political Repression

Evidence of staggering, institutionalized corruption is a dire indictment of the entire Iraqi political process—a system of patronage and nepotism wherein parties vie for parliamentary seats and control of ministries not to serve the people. The outlook darkens further when one considers the political and sectarian violence that has gripped Iraqi society since 2003. The country’s political parties have embraced this violence, prioritizing political control over the aspirations of the Iraqi people, with deadly consequences to all who object or dissent.

When the October 2019 protest movement began, the government used violence to repress the demonstrations. Iran-sponsored militias even deployed snipers and used deadly live fire to quell the protests. Despite numerous promises from Baghdad to investigate the violence, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has confirmed that the government has not followed up on its commitment as of HRW’s last World Report published in late 2022.

The sectarianism that has become an unavoidable fact of modern Iraq’s socio-political fabric has kept Iraqis from the polls, even if regular Iraqis disapprove of it as it is systemic rather than a social predisposition. What came to be known as muhasasa—a power-sharing system among Iraq’s different sects—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. The distribution of political power along confessional lines all but ensured that each of Iraq’s major demographics would vote along sectarian lines. Rather than reducing interreligious tensions, the structure had the adverse effect of deepening them.

A Failure of the Global Order

The complete failure of the United States and the new political elites in Iraq to deliver what they promised the Iraqi people has reverberated throughout the Middle East and across the globe. Results of Iraq’s destabilization can be seen across the Middle East. The most direct examples remain ongoing sectarian conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and other restive areas of the Gulf like Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. Further afield, this has led other autocratic superpowers like Russia and China to cite America’s complete disregard for the United Nations whenever Moscow and Beijing seek to justify their own destabilizing and destructive policies.

Indeed, many of today’s foreign policy crises can trace their roots back to regime change in Iraq. The removal of Saddam Hussein from power created a power vacuum in the Middle East, which emboldened Russia to take more aggressive actions in Syria to little U.S. resistance. When Russia witnessed Obama’s weak response to Assad crimes and Moscow’s intervention in Syria, it gambled that it could secure gains within its own backyard, seizing Crimea and supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. One may even argue that Vladimir Putin assumed that the United States and its Western allies would do little to stop its full-on invasion of Ukraine in 2022, as they had shown little prior resolve to check Moscow.

Obviously, violation of international laws of one state should not justify similar actions of others. As the world’s unipolar hegemon, the United States had a unique opportunity to construct a liberal institutionalist international order. But the U.S. has undermined its own creation by not only invading Iraq, but by leaving it in the state it is in today.

A weak and divided Iraq has created instability in the wider region and within the global order, but international support for Iraq to become a stable, independent country that respects the wishes of its people would go a long way to reverse the regional malaise afflicting the Middle East and also restoring faith in the international system. However, with the current roster of politicians ruling the country and incessant foreign meddling in Iraq’s affairs from the likes of Iran and its militias, a solution appears to be a long way away. The Iraqi people must instead contend with the reality that their country has effectively lost two decades and an entire generation to war, corruption, and misery.

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. Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues.

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