Twenty Years After Invasion, Is Iraq Salvageable? – OpEd
By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin*
The cataclysmic Iraq invasion was built on lies and fraudulent motivations, shattering the balance of the region in a manner that still has ramifications today, particularly after the subsequent destruction of neighboring Syria.
Baghdad and Iraq for centuries constituted the beating heart of Arab civilization and culture. Yet 20 years after the invasion, and following the deaths of about 500,000 Iraqis, this keystone Arab nation remains a fragmented wreck, despite its immense natural resources.
One legacy of this war was that Iraq became one of the most corrupt countries on the planet, with up to $300 billion of its wealth plundered since 2003. Iraqis are meanwhile mired in poverty, unemployment, environmental pollution, non-functioning services, spiralling drug addiction and sectarian tensions.
It’s not as if President George W.Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney weren’t warned. Arab leaders were among the most vocal in predicting the outcome of the invasion. “Anyone who thinks he can control Iraq is deluding himself,” the late Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal warned on the eve of invasion. But the Arab world also made a catastrophic mistake in walking away from Iraq, severing the nation from its Arab heartland. Similarly fateful errors are being made with Lebanon and Syria.
The Americans disproportionately heeded advice from a small cabal of Iraqis with a dangerously distorted agenda, leading to the wholesale dissolution of the army and the civil service. Thousands of teachers, police, medics and career civil servants were summarily sacked because of possible Baathist sympathies. Sectarian death squads repurposed registers of these disgraced personnel as kill lists.
Shiite paramilitary forces who returned to Iraq in 2003 had been reared on slogans of “Death to America,” but these forces concluded that the best route to consolidate power was to smile sweetly and whisper in the Americans’ ear. Thus, entities such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq became US partners of choice, despite these émigré groups being regarded with suspicion by most Iraqis.
Nouri Al-Maliki’s tenure as prime minister took these tendencies to extremes; his interpretation of de-Baathification essentially meant purging all Sunnis. The horrors of the 2005-2008 period are difficult to exaggerate, as thousands of Iraqis were slaughtered each month by Shiite militias and Sunni extremists, resulting in massive demographic changes, particularly in Baghdad.
The US managed to dismantle Al-Qaeda in Iraq by mobilising Sunni Awakening forces, but Maliki saw these forces as a threat and remorselessly eradicated them, creating a vacuum that Daesh was perfectly configured to fill. Militias responsible for mass killings were forged by Maliki into Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition — a force supposedly constituted to combat Daesh, but which in the long term has arguably done more damage to Iraq than Daesh ever could.
Successive bouts of mass demonstrations throughout the south have been suppressed by Hashd paramilitaries with brute violence and bouts of assassinations of journalists and activists. In contrast, Sunni regions have recently been relatively quiescent, largely because these impoverished communities are now so marginalized from political affairs that they lack any meaningful voice.
Hashd militias became further corrupted through wholesale involvement in economic activities, reaping billions of dollars from illegal checkpoints, oil smuggling, extorting businesses, and prostitution. Drug addiction was practically unknown in Iraq before 2003, but it has now reached epidemic levels as these militias have swamped the country with illegal narcotics.
Despite these militias being wholly rejected by Iraqis during the previous round of elections, they still imposed their choices of government on the electorate. As well as subverting every branch of the central political administration, they have carved the country up into mafia fiefdoms.
What ramifications will the Saudi-Iran deal have for Iraq? I have been told that Iraq was at the top of Riyadh’s priorities during negotiations, some early rounds of which took place in Baghdad. In recent years, Arab states have been making serious efforts to reengage with Iraq, including the return of ambassadors, ambitious electricity projects, major investments, encouragement of pan-Arab trade, and the facilitation of travel and tourism for reopening Iraq to the Arab world — on the model of the highly successful recent Arabian Gulf Cup football tournament in Basra.
Iraqis have only to look across their southern borders at how Gulf states are flourishing, even at a time when the global economy is falling apart. Iraq, with its immense oil wealth, could aspire to a similarly flourishing social model, if it could address the challenges of corruption, militia dominance and political dysfunction.
That Iraq still exists as a unitary state and holds elections every few years has been interpreted by some distant observers as demonstrating that the outcomes of the 2003 invasion weren’t all bad. But Iraq in 2023 is a smouldering volcano. The country came close to civil conflict in 2022, as rival militias faced off in tense encounters in central Baghdad. Given that both sides had tens of thousands of militiamen at their disposal, one wrong move could have triggered carnage.
There is nothing redeemable or salvageable about Iraq’s political system. Speaking to Iraqis these days, there is a remarkable lack of hope and a perception that nothing will ever improve. The danger for Iraqi political factions is that they have so destroyed trust in their governing system that citizens no longer believe in the possibility of reform through voting or civic participation, and instead will seek more radical means for eliminating those forces that have ravaged Iraq.
The Arab world should energetically support the Iraqi people in regaining their rightful dignity and prosperity. We should not rest until Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen are wholly restored to the Arab fold and provided with the emergency assistance they require to return to their former prosperity and splendor.
If this aspiration were realized — and I believe that one day it will be — this would transform the global stature and pre-eminence of the entire Arab world, making this once again a mighty region to be reckoned with.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.