Foreign Affairs

The battle for Iraq

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If you have lived at almost any point in the 21st Century, you will probably be aware that Iraq is not the most peaceful place in the world. For many it is synonymous with war, destruction and – of course – oil.

Over the past several months Iraq has been experiencing the largest and most violent protests it has seen since 2003, observing demonstrations against corruption, unemployment and, interestingly, both Iranian and American influence.

While corruption and unemployment are ubiquitous in developing areas of the world, Iraq also has the misfortune of being situated in perhaps the most geopolitically important place on earth.

Its strategic position between two of the largest regional powers has made it the principal battleground of a new Middle Eastern Cold War, leading to massive protests demanding the removal of foreign forces from the country.

I cannot stress enough the importance of this for the long term future of Iraq. Though it is easy to identify the 2003 invasion as the genesis of the present crisis, it also exposed a much deeper and more fundamental issue with the ill-conceived concept of an Iraqi nation-state.

Like many other postcolonial nations, Iraq is a Frankenstein’s monster: Pieced together from three disparate former Ottoman provinces, it lacked the religious, ethnic or cultural homogeneity typical of successful nation-states.

Sandwiched between the two political and theological rivals of Sunni Saudi Arabia and revolutionary Shiite Iran, each anathema to the other, Iraq’s demographic composition has made it distinctly susceptible to foreign influences. 

Comprising around 64-69% of the total population, Iraq’s Shiites are located mostly in the South of the country, while Sunni Arabs and Kurds reside primarily in the North West and North East respectively. Since 2003, it is the Shia that have been the dominant faction in Iraqi politics, with the two foremost Shiite political coalitions winning 101 of 329 seats in the 2018 parliamentary election.

For its part, Iran has used its influence in Iraq with the aim of ensuring that it will never again pose an existential threat to the Islamic Republic. Pro-Iranian militias like Kataib Hezbollah have become a hallmark of this, as have the numerous state officials with ties to Iran. 

The downside to this of course is that an Iraq dominated by Shiites becomes a security concern for the Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has taken to accommodating anti-Iranian factions so as to build its own influence – no doubt to the ire of the Iranian leadership.

Shiite hegemony of the post-Saddam political system had therefore caused Iraq to take on a noticeably sectarian dimension, with corruption infiltrating every area of society from employment opportunities to government contracts.

Companies are rarely held accountable for the quality or non-delivery of their work as contracts are awarded exclusively to those with ties to ruling party officials. Nepotism in the Iraqi political structure has also caused the state payroll to skyrocket from 850,000 personnel in 2004 to around 7 – 9 million in 2016.

State institutions, including the military, became engines for profit. Soldiers would exchange half of their salary for permanent leave, while others were using checkpoints as extortion rackets for goods vehicles.

Public investment projects have been ignored and billions are embezzled at the expense of the civil population; whereas in Saddam’s Iraq, mechanisms were in place to limit corruption at all but the very highest level and ruthlessly enforced.

The Saddam era was no halcyon period of Iraqi history – Far from it. But even this despotic archetype fully understood the dangers of corruption to his grip on power.

One thing I found particularly interesting about Saddam’s Iraq was the attempt to control the religious landscape by fostering a sort of Arab nationalist facet of Islam. This may seem strange given the secular notoriety of a Baathist state, but it really wasn’t such a crazy idea. 

The so-called ‘Faith Campaign’ had aimed to co-opt religious figures as state apparatus in response to the fiscal pressures of the 1990s, insofar that only 70 of 1,501 religious leaders were of concern to the Iraqi authorities by 1995. Maintaining its hard-line anti-Iranian rhetoric, the Baath party attempted to transcend the sectarian divide through the promotion of Islam as an Arab religion.

Despite its many, many faults, the regime clearly showed an acute awareness of the pervasive key issues that could undermine their hold on power; namely corruption, sectarianism and external interference. These very same issues form the nucleus of the current protests.

So while foreign powers like Iran and the US have used Iraq as a battleground to further their own interests, the growing mass of people battling for their own country has been largely overlooked. Yet in the midst of endemic corruption, unemployment, insurgency, political inertia, a crumbling economy, interstate hostilities, and the use of live ammunition against demonstrators, there is a silver lining.

Whereas previous conflicts in Iraq have shown unmistakably sectarian characteristics, the present protests are generally focused in the Shiite-majority south. This indicates that Iraqis are not only shunning the use of force in favour of nonviolent protest, but also that they are at last finding some national cohesion through the pursuit of a common goal.

The continued violations of Iraqi sovereignty and the flawed, dysfunctional, self-serving nature of the post-2003 political structure have highlighted the necessity of comprehensive reform and unassailable independence to the very foundations of the Iraqi state.

If this is not achieved, it is likely that Iraq will see more violence. Perhaps even another civil war. Until Iraq becomes a buffer state rather than a battleground, its internal politics will continue to be dominated by – and thus continue to be a problem for – external powers.

With the formation of a new government in receipt of both Iranian and American blessings, these interdependent issues may, and must, finally be addressed.

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