Iraqi politics are chaotic and corrupt 20 years after the US invasion

US Marines topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in April 2003. Photo: Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

two decades after the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraq is “not free”, at least according to the latest Freedom House analysis.

The big picture: The US-led invasion that began 20 years ago this week and swiftly toppled one of the world’s most repressive regimes has not, as its architects in the George W administration hoped. Bush, heralded a new dawn for democracy in the region.

  • Rather than the birthday, most Iraqis focus on “the frustrations of the current reality: the kleptocracy, the lack of services”, explains Omar Al-Nidawi, program director of the Enabling Peace in Iraq Center.
  • The invasion raised a new class of politicians, many of them exiles who returned to vie for power and continue to do so today, Al-Nidawi says.
  • “They got their foot in the door, they got resources, they got positions. So when the country moved to a democratic system, they had an advantage,” he says. Patronage networks, state resources and militias helped to consolidate their power.

State of play: Corruption and bigotry have been endemic in Iraqi politics since the invasion, with Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties sharing the highest positions and government ministries, and using their share of the budget to enrich themselves and employ their supporters , says Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East security program at CNAS.

  • This budget is almost entirely financed by oil. “There is almost no private sector economy to speak of in Iraq,” says Lord.
  • About half of Iraq’s population was born after the invasion. But young Iraqis unable to find jobs in the government or the oil industry have few job options.
  • A Gallup Index of Global Sentiment ranks Iraq as the third most unhappy country, behind Afghanistan and Lebanon.

Rollback: US troops withdrew after eight years of war – in which around 200,000 Iraqis died along with nearly 5,000 US soldiers – but returned in 2014 to help deal with the rise of the Islamic State. About 2,500 US troops remain in the country to help prevent a resurgence.

  • They also keep an eye on Iran, which has grown increasingly powerful inside Iraq with the fall of Saddam and the withdrawal of the United States. Powerful militias in Iraq have ties both to Tehran and to political parties in Baghdad.

Yes, but: Even surviving this long, Iraq has defied many expectations, notes Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.

  • “Iraqi society has come to enjoy a modicum of freedom. The country has a multi-party system for the first time in its history, repeated and relatively fair parliamentary elections, and a free (but easily intimidated) press.”
  • But falling voter turnout and waves of protest, often driven by a lack of basic services like reliable electricity, underscore disillusionment with the current system.

The last: Current Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani took office in October 2022 following a long and volatile post-election power struggle. Sudani was backed by a bloc of pro-Iranian parties, but he tried to dispel claims he is loyal to Tehran and this week called the United States a “strategic partner”.

  • In addition to balancing outside powers, he’s trying to quickly demonstrate progress at home, especially in the power supply, Lord says. “He understands he doesn’t have long before he faces protesters in the streets again.”

What to watch: Al-Nidawi does not believe the old guard will change color, but he is encouraged by the unusual number of new parties and independent candidates who won seats in the 2021 elections.

  • “I don’t expect much good from this government, left to its own devices,” he said. “But I’m optimistic about what ordinary voters can do.”

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