Twenty years after the US invasion, politics in Iraq is chaotic and corrupt

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

Two decades after the US launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraq “is not free,” at least according to Freedom House’s latest 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 did not herald, as the architects in the George W. Bush administration hoped, a new dawn for democracy in the region.

  • Instead of the anniversary most Iraqis are focused on “the frustrations of the current reality: the kleptocracy, the lack of services,” said Omar Al-Nidawi, program director for the Enabling Peace in Iraq Center.
  • The invasion brought a new class of politicians to the top, many of them exiles who returned to compete for power and still do, says Al-Nidawi.
  • “They got their foot in the door, they acquired resources, they acquired positions. So when the country transitioned to a democratic system, they had an advantage,” he says. Protection networks, state resources and militias helped cement their power.

Situation: Corruption and sectarianism have been endemic in Iraqi politics since the invasion, with Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties dividing up top jobs and 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.

  • That budget is financed almost entirely by oil. “There is almost no significant private economy in Iraq,” says Lord.
  • About half of the Iraqi population was born after the invasion. But young Iraqis who can’t get a job in the government or the oil industry have few opportunities to work.
  • A Gallup index of global sentiment ranks Iraq as the third most unhappy country, behind only Afghanistan and Lebanon.

review: US troops withdrew after eight years of war — during which an estimated 200,000 Iraqis died along with nearly 5,000 US troops — but returned in 2014 to help fight the rise of ISIS. About 2,500 US troops remain in the country to help prevent a resurgence.

  • They also keep an eye on Iran, which grew in power in Iraq as Saddam fell and the US pulled out. Powerful militias in Iraq have ties to both Tehran and political parties in Baghdad.

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

  • “Iraqi society enjoyed a little freedom. For the first time in its history, the country has a multi-party system, repeated and relatively fair parliamentary elections, and a free (but easily intimidated) press.”
  • But declining voter turnout and waves of protest, often caused by a lack of basic services such as reliable electricity, underline disillusionment with the current system.

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

  • In addition to balancing outside forces, he’s trying to make quick progress at home, especially on power supply, Lord says. “He understands that he doesn’t have long before he will encounter protesters on the street again.”

What to watch: Al-Nidawi does not believe the old guard will change its stripes, but is encouraged that an unusual number of new parties and independent candidates won seats in the 2021 election.

  • “I don’t expect much good to come out of this abandoned government,” he says. “But I’m optimistic about what ordinary voters can do.”

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