Iraq has a troubled history of dictatorship, conflict and sectarian fragmentation, and its struggles are far from over. It’s been 50 years since the Ba’ath Party took over the government in a 1968 coup, with Saddam Hussein riding into power on its coattails. Hussein was ousted in 2003 by the U.S.-led invasion, ushering in an era of Iraq trying to find its footing as a democratic state but hobbled by violent power struggles between its Shiite majority and once-ruling Sunni minority, as well as geopolitical shifts in the region and the threat of the Islamic State.
The terrorist group seized wide swaths of territory in 2014 by capitalizing on Sunni marginalization and a weak central government. With America’s help, Baghdad was able to declare victory over the Islamic State last year, although the insurgency remains a potent destabilizing force (also see “Obama’s Strategy to Defeat Terrorist Group Lives on Under Trump” in the September 2017 issue).
Reconstruction is the focus right now, but the process will be long and harrowing — and expensive. A major donors’ conference in February mustered only a fraction of the $88 billion the Iraqi government asked for to rebuild its shattered cities and towns.
Iraq is by no means a failed state. It is managing to keep itself somewhat together, but it can’t do that on its own yet — despite the investment of billions of dollars in U.S. aid and an American military presence that at its peak reached 166,000 troops (but is now down to just over 5,000).
There are myriad forces, both internal and external, preventing the country from achieving stability. It’s not an impossible goal, but it will require savvy political management to keep the various factions of society from turning on one another, plus continued support from other countries. That includes the U.S., whose leaders have understood the strategic importance of Iraq but face a public that has grown weary of America’s 15-year entanglement in the war-riven country.
One bright spot: elections.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for May 12, with thousands of candidates competing for nearly 330 seats.
“Throughout the travails we’ve had over the last 14, 15 years since the regime change, we have had elections as constitutionally mandated all the time,” said Fareed Yasseen, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, at a panel at the U.S. Institute of Peace in April.
“We did not miss a single one, so we are going to hold these elections,” he said. “They’re going to be held under difficult conditions, but I can assure you that there is great goodwill, and a strong will, in Iraq to make these work,” including asking NGOs to provide international observers to strengthen the legitimacy of the results.
Shortly after President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 under the now-debunked pretense that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, the country of 37 million plunged into freefall. A Sunni-led insurgency, spearheaded by al-Qaeda fighters, emerged to battle U.S. coalition forces and the new Shiite leadership, resulting in a sectarian bloodbath that killed possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and forced Bush to launch a 2007 troop surge to tamp down the violence.
Eventually, President Obama wound down America’s troop commitments, but sporadic violence continued to wreak havoc on the country while Sunni grievances against the government of divisive Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki festered.
It was against this backdrop that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, exploded onto the scene in June 2014, capturing large tracts of territory and declaring its self-styled Islamic caliphate. In fact, the radical Sunni militant group, a splinter of al-Qaeda, had its origins in the U.S.-led invasion, when it rose to oppose American occupation of the country.
The fall of Mosul in June 2014, when the Islamic State drove out Iraq’s humiliated army, was a key moment for Iraq because it ushered in a semblance of national unity, however tentative. While some Sunni communities initially preferred the Islamic State’s harsh rule over the chaotic, corrupt state of affairs in Baghdad, sentiment quickly soured against the Islamic State’s barbaric tactics. The civil war that ensued until 2017 was fought between the Islamic State and civilians, not just Iraq’s military, Ambassador Yasseen said.
The idea of nationalism was certainly not common in Iraq, but the galvanizing opposition against a common enemy that brutalized the whole population showed that it was indeed possible to have national solidarity in a country as fragmented as Iraq.
“The fight against ISIS was carried out by Iraqis,” as opposed to outside troops, Yasseen said at the panel, “and they paid a heavy burden of blood, so this is a victory where we really have a lot of skin and even blood in the game, and we are concerned. We want it to stick. In a strange way, ISIS actually brought us together.”
He added, “Their ideology pushed them to do things that were unthinkable, unacceptable, beheading Americans, [enslaving] Yazidi women, killing all the Yazidi men, expelling the minorities from Mosul — nobody can accept that. And so we all united.”
But with the Islamic State now routed out of its territorial holdings, Iraq’s sense of national unity has proved fleeting, and the sectarian tensions that were put on pause have resurfaced. The upcoming elections will determine if coalition governing can work in this latest iteration of the tug of war among the country’s many competing factions — or whether those factions will dig in further, possibly sparking a new era of violent clashes.
Iraqi society is divided into many groups, including Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Christians and Yazidis. Among the most prominent sectarian groups in Iraq are the Kurds. Kurdistan, officially an autonomous region of Iraq, made a play for statehood in a referendum last September that resulted in an overwhelming popular vote for independence. Kurdistan has economic clout in Iraq because of the oil fields it controls. During the campaign against the Islamic State, the U.S.-backed Kurds proved to be among the most battle-hardened fighters able to not only reclaim territory, but also expand the Kurds’ territorial claims.
But the Kurds’ bid for independence backfired on them, spectacularly (also see “Former U.S., Iraqi Diplomats Criticize Wisdom of Kurdish Independence Vote” in the October 2017 issue).
Baghdad decided to flex its muscle and kept the Kurds in line with the support of Washington, which feared destabilizing the country. So for now, the Kurds’ long-held dream of independence will remain just that, a dream.
What the Kurds are left with is having to play the game in Iraq’s government, where they are just one of many groups vying for power and a say in their future.
“We believe that the constitution is the best guide for our relationship with Baghdad,” said Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) representative to the United States, at the panel with Yasseen. “The constitution does have shortcomings, and every group will find shortcomings that apply to itself, but broadly the constitution is the way forward. It protects the rights of different groups, different ethnicities, different religions. It sets out a federal structure for Iraq, which hasn’t truly been implemented, and if implemented, I believe it will strengthen Iraq.”
That includes the all-important question of oil wealth, which has been the most divisive issue between the KRG and Baghdad. “We need a revenue-sharing mechanism that enables every citizen of Iraq to share in the wealth,” Rahman said, as well as a joint security mechanism in the disputed territories, which, she pointed out, was previously successful.
Of course, one of the reasons that the Islamic State was able to make strong inroads in Iraq was because of ordinary citizens’ frustrations with the government, which has long been accused of corruption, patronage and an inability to delivery security or economic stability.
But Yasseen said those grievances predated the current administration or the U.S.-led invasion and have their roots in Hussein’s authoritarian rule, which benefited the Sunni ruling class at the expense of Iraq’s Shiite and Kurdish masses.
“The extremist ideologies in Iraq … came in through the 1990s through Saddam’s faith campaign that opened the door to them,” Yasseen said. “These extremist ideologies were the engine that brought tens of thousands of foreign fighters into Iraq.”
What Iraq should focus on now is encouraging its disgruntled citizens to buy into the legitimacy of government by participating in elections.
There is hope Iraqis can do just that. In 2014, amid the Islamic State blitzkrieg, Maliki resigned and Haider al-Abadi took over as prime minister. With America’s help, Abadi was able to rebuild the tattered army and restore the country’s sovereignty. He has also earned plaudits for balancing relations with the U.S. and Iran, Iraq’s Shiite ally. In the wake of the Islamic State’s defeat, Sunni fears of widespread reprisal killings by Iran-backed Shiite militias under the umbrella of the PMU (Popular Mobilization Units) never fully materialized. In fact, the PMU was officially recognized as a security force and is now being absorbed into the political system.
A March 31 editorial in The Economist opines that Iraq is finally getting back on its feet. The Islamic State is out, oil prices are on the rise, terrorist attacks are down dramatically, religious minorities feel safer, Kurdish nationalism has been put on the backburner and secularism — once a calling card among politicians — is now downplayed.
“Iraq’s dominant religious parties used to flaunt their sectarian loyalties to get out the vote at elections,” the magazine wrote. “Now many hide them. An opinion poll last August showed that only 5% of Iraqis would vote for a politician with a sectarian or religious agenda. Yesteryear’s Shia [Shiite] supremacists these days promise to cherish the country’s diversity, and recruit other sects to their ranks.”
This civic trust is tenuous, though, because the nation has gone through a 50-year party dictatorship, sanctions, foreign occupation and a civil war. The Islamic State has not completely vanished. The economy has been battered, and foreigners aren’t exactly lining up to fund much-needed reconstruction efforts. Polarizing actors such as Maliki are still angling for power. And a cutthroat web of factions still cling to their religious identity and age-old hatreds.
The government appears to be trying to rule as a democracy, but it is on unsteady national ground. While the people of Iraq are drained from fighting the Islamic State, they are still fighting each other.
Stability and U.S. Involvement
The Islamic State no longer holds territory in Iraq, but it continues to haunt the country, adding to a potentially explosive situation.
“It’s a situation that is so complicated because conditions on the ground have gotten worse since the fall of Mosul,” Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security, asserted. “The ISIS insurgency has picked up operational tempo. There’s an ongoing challenge in disputed regions between Kurds and Iraq. Turkey seeks to expand its sphere of influence. There’s the possibility of Shia-on-Shia violence. The situation is quite complicated. There’s a general tenseness.”
“Recent lethal attacks in Baghdad, Hawija and elsewhere show that while ISIS may not hold the territory it once did in Iraq, the group remains able to reach into Iraq and cause deadly violence there,” Joshua Geltzer, former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council and now a visiting professor at Georgetown Law Center, wrote in an email. “That will remain the case so long as ISIS is able to maintain some territorial safe haven in Syria, and perhaps even beyond that point in time.”
Adding to the instability is a humanitarian crisis stemming from Syria’s civil war and Iraq’s internally displaced people. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, counts nearly 250,000 registered Syrian refugees in Iraq. Kurdistan alone has 1.5 million Syrian refugees and internally displaced Iraqis, said Rahman at the panel. These refugees are straining already-strained resources.
“Iraq is an underdeveloped country,” said Heras. It may have a lot of oil wealth, but it is fundamentally weak “when it comes to infrastructure, access to education, potable water, equal economic distribution. That’s central to the political campaign going on in Iraq.”
Iraqis are extremely frustrated with their government. They want effective governance, which requires strong institutions, and Iraq cannot build this institutional base without the help of the United States. Iraqis are well aware of this, and they generally want the U.S. to continue supporting the country as it tries to find some stable footing.
While the U.S. is not interested in nation building, it does have a vested interest in stabilizing Iraq because of the country’s key role in the Middle East. President Trump has been trumpeting isolationism since he took office, but he seems to understand the need for the U.S. to retain some sort of presence in Iraq to check the Islamic State and Iranian hegemony.
Prime Minister Abadi is central to the U.S. exerting influence in Iraq. “Ideally, what the U.S. military would want is that Abadi weathers the political storms of 2018,” said Heras. “As long as Abadi is in power, he seems willing to give the U.S. political cover, as long as U.S. troops remain on their bases and provide air support against ISIS. That’s a pillar of U.S. policy in the Near East. If Abadi goes, which could happen, the U.S. stands to be at great risk. U.S. troops would be directly targeted. The U.S. would be ignominiously told to leave.”
Abadi’s Electoral Chances
Abadi has managed to hold the country together in the face of constant conflict and deeply entrenched divisions, fending off political challenges, paying people’s salaries despite falling oil prices and “preventing the country from being used as a space for proxy wars by regional and international powers,” wrote Sajad Jiyad in an Oct. 16 article for Foreign Policy.
While he remains popular, Abadi’s victory is far from assured in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Jobs are scarce, government coffers are reliant on a volatile oil market, corruption is endemic and security remains tenuous. Most important, Iraq’s postwar politics are still dictated by sectarianism, with Sunnis, Kurds and a panoply of Shiite players agitating for power.
Margaret Coker and Falih Hassan, writing in a Jan. 30 article for The New York Times, said Abadi stumbled out of the gate by welcoming leaders of Iran-backed Shiite militias into his cross-sectarian coalition, dubbed the “Victory Alliance.”
“The Iranian-backed Shiite militias have won praise for helping defeat the Islamic State, but they have also been accused in sectarian atrocities, and their leaders are seen by many as tools of Iran. Sunni and Kurdish leaders were furious. Even a Shiite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, a possible kingmaker in this vote, called the alliance ‘abhorrent,’” Coker and Hassan wrote. “Within 24 hours, Mr. Abadi had reversed himself, and the militia leaders left the coalition.”
Sadr represents both Abadi’s opposition and potential ally in the upcoming elections and their aftermath. Sadr is a popular Shiite cleric and militia leader with a history of fierce opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq. Not surprisingly, he has called for ousting the remaining U.S. troops in the country.
Another threat is Maliki, Abadi’s predecessor, who is eyeing a comeback. Maliki, in fact, remains the official leader of the Islamic Dawa party. “So in a classic example of the serpentine nature of Iraqi politics, Mr. Maliki has blocked Mr. Abadi from using Dawa resources for his campaign,” wrote Coker and Hassan.
Likewise, The Economist noted that Abadi’s challenges remain formidable. “Iraq has known, and wasted, other hopeful moments. The overthrow of Saddam was botched by America, which shut Sunnis out of the new order. The respite won by its surge of troops in 2007-08 was botched by Nuri al-Maliki,” it wrote. “Iraq holds much promise, given its abundant oil and water and its educated population. And Mr. Abadi is remarkably popular among Sunnis even though he, like Mr. Maliki, is from Dawa.
“Yet Mr. Abadi has failed to turn his military victory into political gain,” the magazine cautioned. “Confronted with a dispirited population, powerful militias, lurking jihadists and scheming politicians, Iraq’s governing class has yet to show it knows how to win the peace.”
No matter what the outcome of the elections, many experts say the U.S. cannot afford to turn its back on Iraq, even though public support for U.S. involvement has waned with time and lives lost.
“Iraq has a lot of bad memories for the American public,” said Heras. “There’s a desire to keep Iraq at arm’s length.”
“But it’d be a mistake to think that the United States can somehow declare victory and depart from Iraq,” wrote Geltzer in an email. “We’ve seen in ISIS’s own rise how quickly the remnants of even a depleted terrorist network can regrow, and it’d be a terrible development for Iraq, the broader region and the United States if something similar were to occur again.”
About the Author
Aileen Torres-Bennett is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.