Iraq continues to suffer from the hangover of 2003 invasion
By Ding Heng
In the lead up to the invasion of Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition that toppled the government of Saddam Hussein in 2003, then U.S. President George W. Bush said that a free Iraq would be an example of progress and prosperity for the region. Bush's rhetoric is laughable in retrospect. Instead of progress and prosperity, post-invasion Iraq has witnessed cycles of violence and instability. With the ongoing protests in the country having led to more than 100 deaths, it looks like Iraq is stepping into a new cycle of instability.
Although the protests were triggered by the demotion of a celebrated general, economic grievances appear to be a more important cause of the unrest. Most of the demonstrators have taken to the streets to express their frustrations over corruption, a lack of access to public services, and a shortage of job opportunities.
Iraqi protesters burn items to block the road as they clash with security forces during a demonstration in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, south of Iraq's capital Baghdad on October 27, 2019. [Photo: AFP]
There is widespread feeling among Iraqis that their country has failed to offer them a decent life. According to the World Bank, 16 percent of Iraqi youths are unemployed. In a country where 60 percent of the population is under the age of 24, the youth jobless rate is particularly worrying. While the oil industry accounts for some 90 percent of government revenue and more than 55 percent of the country's GDP, it employs only 1 percent of Iraq's labor force. Apart from international oil companies, foreign investors have been reluctant to go into Iraq due to worries about red tape and corruption. This in turn has made it difficult for the country to diversify its economy beyond oil and create more jobs. Iraq's government spends as much as 75 percent of its expenditure on maintaining its own operations, such as payroll for government employees, meaning that spending on public goods like education, health care, and infrastructure is very limited. But simply blaming Baghdad for the country's economic woes is to miss the point that, to a large extent, the difficult situation that Iraq faces today is a hangover from the 2003 invasion.
Immediately after Saddam's downfall, Iraq was governed by the United States and its coalition partners in a simple-minded way. Paul Bremer, the American diplomat that headed Iraq's interim government from 2003 to 2004, dissolved the old Iraqi military and fired most of the employees of the old government in a push to get rid of anyone with ties to the former ruling Ba'ath Party. Also out of work were nearly half a million workers from state-owned enterprises (SOE), as Bremer closed some enterprises and stopped funding others. The resulting disillusionment among those soldiers, government employees, and SOE workers drove many to ally themselves with Ba'ath loyalists fighting what would become an eight-year-long insurgency.
On top of this, after the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s Shi'ite majority claimed the premiership and many other key government spots for the first time. The Sunnis, which had dominated politics under Saddam, lost their position of strength, and this shift of power led to an outbreak of sectarian tensions. These tensions were exploited by jihadists who transformed the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida into the more extreme Islamic State. The United States chose to withdraw from Iraq in 2011, and the Islamic State filled the power vacuum left in their wake. By 2014, the extremist group had seized a third of Iraq's territory. With the assistance of outside forces, including the United States and Iran, the Iraqi army defeated the group militarily in 2017. However, the bloody fight against the Islamic State resulted in more foreign intervention in Iraq, which is another major complaint of the people participating in the ongoing protests.
It's frankly unrealistic to expect a country that has been through invasion, civil war, sectarian violence, and an extremist insurgency over a period of more than a decade to be able to deliver a thriving economy. In addition to the government's lack of expertise in economic governance, there's little sign that Iraq's existing political system, which was crafted under direction from Washington, is a force for good in the economy. Under a quota system put in place by Paul Bremer, the post of prime minister is reserved for a Shi'ite Muslim, the parliamentary speaker for a Sunni Muslim, and the presidency for a Kurd. On the surface, this is a fair separation of powers. However, due to the sectarian and ethnic tensions often seen in Iraq after 2003, it has been almost impossible for different political factions to reach consensus and push forward a policy agenda. And instead of curbing corruption through checks and balance, the system has allowed politicians to abuse their power to enrich themselves and their followers, which is part of the reason why Iraq ranks 168th out of 180 countries on Transparency International's 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Iraqi protestors wave national flags during a demonstration in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, south of Iraq's capital Baghdad, on October 25, 2019. [Photo: AFP]
When Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, an economist by training, took office last year, he vowed to fight corruption and overhaul the economy. One year on, he has proven incapable of substantial reforms. After all, he was a compromise candidate nominated by the two biggest Shi'ite-led rival political blocs, so he would find it impossible to challenge the vested interests of the politically-entrenched groups that put him in power.
The fact that the ongoing protests in Iraq don't have an organized leadership means that the street unrest is unlikely to escalate into a civil war as what we saw in Syria in 2011. However, one thing seems clear: Iraqis are increasingly fed up with the system imposed by the United States after 2003. The turnout in last year's parliamentary election was only 44.5 percent, and there appears to be a strong sense of nostalgia for the Saddam era. A recent opinion poll showed that only 22 percent of Iraqis looked favorably at the United States, and 53 percent believe that the goal of the 2003 invasion was to occupy their country and plunder its wealth.
Iraq's story over the past 16 years has shown us how an attempt by the United States to impose its ideas of democracy and freedom on a country with a totally different cultural background can wreak havoc. The biggest challenge in Iraq today is the lack of a state power strong enough to get things done. Such a power was dismantled by the United States in 2003. Without this political power, rampant corruption will continue, and economic reform will remain nowhere to be seen.
Note: Ding Heng is a current affairs reporter with China Plus.