1

The Disenchantment of Iraq

LONDON – Twenty-five years ago, on March 16, 1988, Saddam Hussein’s troops spread poison gas through the Kurdish town of Halabja. The attack, which killed an estimated 5,000 people and injured up to 10,000 more, remains the largest chemical-weapons attack ever to target a civilian population.

In the light of the Halabja atrocity, and the regime’s broader genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds, and massive repression throughout the country, the question “Is Iraq better off now than it was under Saddam Hussein?” requires no great deliberation. Iraqis are rid of a dictator responsible for the deaths of at least one million Iraqis, a man who plunged the country into three wars in 24 years, and whose policies (with the international community’s complicity) kept ordinary Iraqis under the strictest sanctions ever imposed by the United Nations. Yes, Iraq is better off without this absolute despot.

But, for those of us who participated in the effort to reconstruct Iraq starting in 2003, this answer is far too glib. We set the bar far higher. The success of the war must surely be measured by whether its goals – particularly the establishment of a constitutional democracy and the country’s economic reconstruction – have been achieved. By this standard, the war in Iraq was a monumental failure.

The United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority empowered a new group of political elites who fundamentally distrusted one another and, more important, failed to coalesce around a shared vision for governing the country. Rather than giving these new politicians time to broker compromises, the Americans imposed a divisive constitutional process that exacerbated existing fissures, leading to the civil war of 2006-2007.

The Kurdish and Arab Shia religious parties sought a very weak central government in Baghdad, the latter because they feared a return to Sunni minority rule. The Sunni Arab parties initially rejected any notion of a confederated state, but in time they came to believe that the Shia parties would never share power voluntarily. The ongoing cycle of violence is a legacy of this struggle for control.

Today, many Sunni Iraqis aspire to the same autonomy from Baghdad that the Kurds enjoy in the north of the country. The Shia parties, having tasted real power in Iraq for the first time, are now attempting to create a much more centralized state than either the Kurds or Sunni Iraqis – or the constitution, for that matter – will tolerate.

Indeed, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has largely succeeded in concentrating power in his own hands. He has created a network of military and security forces that report directly to him, often outside the legal command structure. He has intimidated the judiciary into ignoring institutional checks on his power, so that constitutionally independent agencies, such as the electoral commission and the central bank, are now under his direct control.

Moreover, Maliki has used the criminal courts to silence his political opponents. Iraq’s Sunni vice president is a fugitive in Turkey, with multiple death sentences rendered against him for alleged terrorist activities, though the judgments were based on the confessions of bodyguards who had been tortured (one died during the “investigation”). An arrest warrant has now been issued against the former finance minister, also a Sunni, on similar charges.

As for the economy, no one expected a replication of Germany’s post-1945 Wirtschaftswunder. Still, Iraq has vast oil and natural-gas reserves, to which all of the major oil companies wanted access. Everyone stood to benefit: the companies would profit handsomely, while Iraq would gain new technology and vast sums to rebuild the country’s devastated infrastructure.

The reality has been far different. After ten years, Iraq’s oil production has finally recovered to its pre-war level. But Iraq’s government has not completed a single infrastructure project: no new hospitals, schools, roads, or housing whatsoever.

Basic services such as electricity and waste collection have yet to be restored even in major urban centers like Baghdad. (By contrast, reconstruction in Iraqi Kurdistan is occurring at breakneck speed.) Iraqis are about to enter their 11th summer, when temperatures routinely exceed 50° C, with no more than sporadic power and running water.

This lack of progress is truly remarkable, given that Iraq’s annual budgets for the last five years have totaled nearly $500 billion. Incompetence and corruption are rampant: Iraq routinely scores among the bottom ten countries in Transparency International’s list of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Likewise, Iraq’s unemployment and underemployment levels remain among the highest in the Middle East. And, as Iraq observer Joel Wing has pointed out, public-sector employment doubled from 2005 to 2010, and now accounts for roughly 60% of the full-time labor force. The brain drain among Iraq’s educated youth has accelerated in the last ten years, because many of them simply see no future in the country.

Amnesty International recently issued a report detailing the continued systematic abuse of fundamental human rights in Iraq. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. True, Maliki’s nascent dictatorship is lighter than that of Saddam at his worst, and perhaps that is some progress. But what has been gained may be far outweighed by what has been lost: the hope that if Saddam and his tyranny could just be removed, decency, stability, and normalcy could be restored. That, finally, is the true tragedy of Iraq in 2013.

Read more from our "Ten Years in Iraq" Focal Point.