The American democratic promise for Iraq remains far away, two decades after the invasion carried out by the Bush Administration and rapid fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Middle Eastern country continues to be plagued today by violence and corruption due to a fragile and unstable political system incapable of putting a stop to the sectarian and political divisions and foreign interference.
Iraq is today a very young country weighed down by extraordinary levels of corruption at all levels and high rates of unemployment and poverty despite being a state rich in natural resources (not surprisingly, Iraq is OPEC’s second largest oil producer). Last year, between a third and a quarter of the state budget was literally plundered by national elites, according to an investigation by the Iraqi justice system. The constant flight of money from public coffers prevents the State from providing citizens with basic services such as electricity or sanitation.
In addition, violence continues to be a daily reality in a society deeply divided and confronted along sectarian lines: Shiite Muslims – concentrated in the south and east – make up around 65% of the population, while Sunnis – located in the west, center and north – represent just over 30%. The regime born of the US invasion tries to navigate between cooperation with Washington – which continues to provide significant military support and humanitarian aid to Baghdad, 2,500 US soldiers remain in Iraq – and the influence of Tehran, sponsor of numerous parties and armed militias in the country.
Since last October and after a year of institutional blockade, the Government of Iraq is led by Mohamed Shia Al Sudani, who has promised, like his predecessors in office, to curb corruption and combat poverty, though few trust the country in his success. This year, elections to the provincial councils are scheduled, which have not been called since 2013. One of the big questions raised is whether the political movement led by eShiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr will run in the next elections after the announcement of his withdrawal from politics at the end of last August (an episode that resulted in more than 30 deaths and hundreds of injuries).
The Al Sadr Movement, which opposes both US and Iranian interference, had prevailed in the October 2021 parliamentary elections and the withdrawal of its deputies from Parliament paved the way for the election of Al Sudani as head of the Government. Tensions, however, between the different factions in the Shiite camp remain raging.
The US invasion and sudden overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime –in an operation justified by the supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction- at the beginning of spring 2003 was followed by an ungovernable scenario –not foreseen by US intelligence, but usual in other Western and US attempts in the region – of sectarian division and violence, hitherto tightly controlled by the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein (a Sunni who ruled a majority Shiite country through a one-party system of secular, socialist and Pan-Arabist).
The sectarian policies practiced by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki –a Shiite in power after decades of Sunni rule in Baghdad- during his more than eight years at the helm of the Government did not help coexistence between different ethno-religious groups at all. The war between the new Iraqi state and the Anglo-American coalition against the Sunni insurgency formed by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State would end in December 2011 after eight years of death and destruction.
But two years later, in December 2013, Sunni jihadism hit the Iraqi Army hard again. In June of the following year, the Islamic State would culminate its victorious campaign by taking over Mosul and Tikrit. A new war cycle began. With the definitive fall of Mosul in the summer of 2017, the international coalition and the Iraqi forces managed to finish off Daesh, which had come to take control of almost 40% of Iraqi territory and a third of Syrian territory. Yet given the fragility of the Iraqi state, the threat that the remnants of the jihadist caliphate could reorganize and reemerge remains very present.
Iraq’s problems do not end in the political and social sphere. The country bathed by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers is suffering particularly virulently from the consequences of climate change in the form of desertification and water scarcity, and many specialists predict that in the coming years the major conflicts in Iraq and the Middle East and South Africa as a whole North will be associated with the fight for control of water reserves.
But not everything has been dark news in these two decades. The level of violence and insecurity has decreased in the last five years and the political system, although afflicted with deep ills, tries to move forward as best it can. Spaces for freedom of expression have also been conquered through the press in recent years. In addition, in the north of present-day Iraq, the Kurds enjoy broad autonomy enshrined in the 2005 Constitution and comparatively greater security than in the rest of the country -and a direct relationship with the United States- not exempt, however, from tensions between the different political entities (mainly between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Kurdistan Patriotic Union).
On the other hand, the recent announcement of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia could have positive repercussions for Iraq (the rapprochement between the two arch-enemies owes a debt to the former Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi), as well as for other countries affected by sectarian conflicts and by interposition such as Yemen, Lebanon or Syria.
Two decades after the start of the war, Iraq is trying to definitively turn the page on one of the most painful moments in its contemporary history and make the most of the potential of a young and growing population -41 million souls- and an economy that will continue to benefiting from hydrocarbon exports in the coming years. Since 2003, the war and subsequent violence have cost the lives of almost 300,000 people in Iraq and have left more than 9 million displaced. A necessarily grim balance sheet for an exhausted country that refuses to give up hope