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Iraq war: The US destroyed a country. Corrupt Iraqi elites did not build one

After US withdrawal, groups that filled the vacuum failed to develop a constructive vision for the country
US Marine Corp officer watches as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad's Firdaus Square on 9 April 2003 (Reuters)

To understand the legacy of the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, we can start by comparing it to the first occupation of the country by a western power, Britain, in March 1917. Iraq is a rare case of a post-colonial nation that came to be occupied - albeit briefly - for a second time. But apart from this, there are significant differences between the two occupations. 

Britain was a colonial power par excellence, executing territorial expansion and military occupation as a common behaviour of great powers at the time. Colonialism was an accepted norm in a Eurocentric world order, whereby reaching external markets and securing control over strategic land and maritime locations was a modus operandi. 

In the post-Ottoman territories, borders and “national” identities were fluid, making it easier for colonial powers to divide them and claim a mandate to lead the newly created states to “civilization”. 

The idea of an Iraqi democracy degenerated into an elitist pact between communal oligarchies, empowered by access to oil rent and partisan militias

In 2003, things were drastically different. The age of colonialism was over, and countries such as Iraq had seen the evolution of a state structure, a collective identity and a sense of nationalism (although there was growing division about the meaning of this nationalism).

Since 1958, Iraq had been ruled by political factions that defined themselves as anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist. Even political groups and trends that dominated the opposition, such as the communist party and later on Islamist parties, were largely anti-colonialist, even anti-western. 

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This culture was socialised and propagated by the Baath regime’s channels of indoctrination, and entrenched by the eventual rise of Islamism as the main language of protest among Iraqi Arabs. 

Furthermore, about 25 years of Saddam Hussein’s brutal authoritarianism and 13 years of inhumane sanctions after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, left Iraqi society locked and isolated, perhaps in a way comparable to North Korean society today. This isolation contributed to the well-reported delusions of the Bush administration and the exiled opposition about how Iraqis would deal with their “liberation” and the potential for building a functioning democracy after the toppling of Saddam.

Ideological motives

Unlike traditional colonialism, the American occupation of Iraq does not appear to have been determined - at least not primarily - by a search for new markets or access to geo-strategic areas, or even a desire to control oil, as popular wisdom assumes. Rather, as suggested by many published works on decision-making within the Bush administration, the decision to invade Iraq was largely driven by security concerns engendered by the 9/11 attacks, mixed with ideological motives and a belief in an American mission of democratisation and liberalisation. 

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center by radical Islamists energised this ideology and strengthened the aggressiveness of the Bush administration. Iraq, we were told, would be the beginning of sweeping change in the long-stagnated Middle East; a country with vast oil wealth, an educated population and a deep desire to be liberated from dictatorship would lead the way, helped by the US

But things did not go in that direction, for two main reasons. Firstly, an externally imposed revolution in Iraq would need a powerful local partner that would embrace the same vision and mobilise people around it. There was no such partner. Decades of brutal and bloody dictatorship, accompanied by wars, international sanctions and economic impoverishment, had destroyed the middle class, dismantled political parties, and deeply weakened civil society - all potential agents of such revolutionary change. 

The muzzle of an assault rifle carried by an Iraqi police officer is seen in Baghdad on 9 March 2023 (AFP)
The muzzle of an assault rifle carried by an Iraqi police officer is seen in Baghdad on 9 March 2023 (AFP)

Indeed, when the regime fell, the only functional grassroots movements were religious ones, primarily represented by Shia clerical networks (such as the one Muqtada al-Sadr inherited from his father), and Islamist radical networks that started to fill the vacuum in Sunni areas after the fall of the Baathists. Soon, “resistance”, rather than democracy, became the dominant motto in these areas.      

The groups that filled the vacuum, whether through grassroots mobilisation or partnership with occupation authorities, had different agendas than the US. Not only did they fail to collectively develop a vision that would make Iraq a functioning, western-allied democracy, as the US envisioned, but they were largely driven by sectarian, ethnic and particularistic perceptions. 

Quickly, the idea of an Iraqi democracy degenerated into an elitist pact between communal oligarchies, empowered by access to oil rents and partisan militias. 

Factional rivalries

Secondly, the US occupation was not managed through a well-articulated, long-term plan. It was only a matter of months between declaring itself an occupying power and handing power over to a divided elite, absorbed in factional rivalries and short-term interests. The objective had quickly changed from sponsoring a nation-building project into securing the conditions for a safe withdrawal.  

Even measures of economic liberalisation that the Coalition Provisional Authority adopted were driven by short-sighted neoliberal ideas that failed to understand the crucial role of the state in the Middle East as an agent of development. The word “development” disappeared from political discourse, and a language centred around identities prevailed, as Iraqis were reduced to ethnic and sectarian groups. 

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The outcome, reinforced and deepened by the ruling ethnic and sectarian factions, was a rentier system captive to oil prices and captured by mafia-like groupings - one that imported almost everything and neglected its water and climate crisis, while at the same time unemployment soared. 

In today’s Iraq, the government has been formed by a coalition that obtained the votes of a mere 15 percent of the electorate, mainly due to a low turnout and growing disillusionment with the system.

A self-serving alliance of political groups, armed actors and judicial institutions are reviving Saddam-era laws and using them to restrict free speech, individual freedoms and political activism. Political assassinations are tolerated by law-enforcement bodies. 

There is a huge gap between this Iraq and that envisioned by the 2003 optimists. It is a gap that the US administration has contributed to by undertaking a poorly planned and recklessly implemented occupation, as well as by its quick abandoning of the country. Yet, it is Iraqis, and their dominant political groups in particular, who shall bear the largest share of responsibility.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Harith Hasan, a Senior Scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center and a SFM Fellow at the Central European University.
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