Inside Story

Is Iraq lost?

Amid deepening divisions and political corruption, northern Iraq is one glimmer of hope in this unstable country, writes Matthew Gray

Matthew Gray 15 April 2014 2039 words

Deepening divisions: Iraqis at the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighbourhood on 9 April 2014. Karim Kadim/AP Photo

The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy
By Zaid Al-Ali | Yale University Press | $49.95

IRAQ has grand ambitions. It plans to increase its oil production from fewer than three million barrels a day to six million an optimistic day by 2020, and eventually to as much as twelve million. And it has the raw material to pull off this feat: its proven reserves are estimated at 143 billion barrels, the fifth-highest in the world, and more could well be lying under its sands.

Might this save Iraq from its corrupt, dysfunctional leadership? Could oil make Iraq so wealthy that no one wants to keep destabilising it? To attract the levels of foreign investment needed to build the wells and the wider infrastructure for six million barrels a day, the government in Baghdad will need to persuade outsiders to take a considerable punt on the country’s future. Some may be willing to take the risk, if they think that Iraq may become the largest single supplier of internationally traded oil – which it would if production hit six million barrels. Others may not accept such a gamble. And much higher levels of production may well be opposed by other oil producers, keen to protect their own positions and maintain oil prices.

It could all come too late anyway. Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, looks more like a dictator every day. Sectarian tensions are increasing; spoilers remain very powerful. Since late 2012, violence has returned to levels last seen at the height of the civil conflict in 2006 and 2007.

Meanwhile, legal changes threaten to take away secular power and perhaps begin the process of Islamising Iraq. Many Iraqi women are anxious about a proposed Personal Status Law, currently before parliament, which would limit women’s rights in marriage, inheritance and divorce; among other things, it implies that men will be permitted to marry girls as young as nine. The new provisions would replace the 1959 Personal Status Law, which was, and remains, one of the most secular and enlightened in the Arab world.

CONSIDERING the position Iraq occupied in US strategic thinking and in the Western media over much of the 2000s, there are remarkably few good books about how post-2003 Iraq got itself into this state. There are plenty of not-so-good ones, mostly cobbled together by journalists and scholars who haven’t devoted enough time to getting to know the country intimately – understandably, perhaps, given the risks of conducting interviews and engaging with ordinary Iraqis.

Some of the first books to appear after 2003 made an impact by highlighting the failings of the US strategy and the aftermath of the war. A couple of good histories, and above all a couple of excellent works on the conditions of women in Iraq, have appeared more recently. Beyond these, though, the literature is dominated by unadorned military histories, self-serving personal memoirs, and shallow analyses of security, insurgency or Islamic extremism. Few books have offered a comprehensive analysis, and fewer still have done it in a way that is accessible to educated lay readers yet also of interest to scholars.

The Struggle for Iraq’s Future is one of those few. A genuinely engaging book written by someone with deep expertise, it offers a strong analysis of what went wrong. For anyone who has an interest in the string of catastrophes and failings that had such a tragic impact on the country, it is required reading. But the book deserves a wider audience than that – and a wider one than it is likely to get – given its important yet sobering discussion and conclusions.

Zaid Al-Ali is well-qualified for the task. An Iraqi by birth, he spent much of his childhood in exile with his family. Although he trained as a lawyer in the West, he kept closely in touch with Iraq through his links with the exile community in London and the United States.

In the optimistic atmosphere of 2003 and 2004, with Saddam removed from power and the prospects for Iraq looking much brighter, he decided he wanted to return to the country of his birth. He would spend half a decade there, from 2005 to 2010, working as a lawyer for the United Nations on Iraq’s constitution (adopted in 2005) and then on legal and judicial development and reform.

He stayed on during Iraq’s darkest times – at least, its darkest to date – including the vicious civil conflict that ran for a half decade from 2004, in which around 150 Iraqis a day, on average, were sacrificed to various strands of violent conflict: terrorism, sectarian attacks, crime and revenge killings. He watched as things first went badly wrong, as the democratisation process was subsumed by violence and sectarianism, as al-Maliki’s government became increasingly repressive after 2007, and as the promise of Iraq’s oil wealth and its highly educated and refined people was stifled by conflict and the complexity of rebuilding a country that had nearly been destroyed by a generation of wars and sanctions.

Al-Ali shows how almost everything has gone wrong for Iraq over the past eleven years, from the poorly planned 2003 American invasion to a government that has accentuated sectarianism and heightened in-fighting rather than soothing the wounds of Saddam’s brutal years. For their part, ordinary Iraqis can do little to respond because they are politically marginalised and disempowered by a system that is opaque, weak and divided.

Many observers have made many of these points before, but Al-Ali does it better than most. His insights come from working in Iraq and with Iraqis for so many years. He gives the reader enough background to understand a little of the country, then dives into the origins of Iraq’s elite, the failings of the new political order, the profound depredations of Iraq’s deeply entrenched corruption, and other issues that have hurt and polarised so many Iraqis and alienated them from the political process. He is not simply playing Cassandra, foretelling impending disaster; instead, he tries to explain just why Iraq is in such a mess despite the fact that things could have been so different.

MOST unusually and interestingly, Al-Ali devotes a chapter to the environmental damage Iraq has sustained in recent decades. The abuse began under Saddam Hussein but it hasn’t been dealt with, and has in many ways been aggravated by subsequent neglect, abuse and corruption.

This chapter alone makes the book worthwhile. Iraq’s environment is perhaps the most underreported of its recent catastrophes. As Al-Ali discusses, dust storms have become more frequent and severe since the first gigantic one occurred in 1994. They are a sight to behold, often emerging out of nowhere, a great wall of red or amber dust that rolls in, blanketing a town or city and obscuring the sun, sometimes for days, making normal life near-impossible. Seeing one for the first time is like watching a Biblical curse unfold. Even in the more moderate of these storms, it’s hard to drive a car, and in the more brutal cases, when visibility drops to just a few metres, simply walking around is difficult and dangerous.

These are not the sand storms that have always been part of life in the Middle East, it should be added. They are dust storms, produced when the wind is strong enough to carry off tons of dirt from the lands that were once Iraq’s farms and fields, or from its riverbeds and unpaved roads, along with the remnants of pesticides and fertilisers. They are like the storms in America’s Dust Bowl in the 1930s, and equally symbolic of an environmental cataclysm.

Al-Ali shows how opportunism and government failures lie behind the storms: the mismanagement of Iraq’s rivers and water supply; the neglect of its farms and collapse of its agricultural sector; the dams that have blocked its main rivers, and fertilisers and pesticides that have polluted them. Perhaps most shocking, at least for its scale, was Saddam’s decision to drain Iraq’s southern marshlands to stop insurgents from hiding in the labyrinth of watercourses, swamps and wetlands around where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet before flowing on into the Persian Gulf.

More broadly, Al-Ali lays out a damning indictment of Iraq’s post-Saddam political elite, reminding readers of just how ill-equipped and poorly qualified most of them were for positions of complexity and power. Many opposition parties were under too great a degree of foreign control to support genuine democratisation. Too many opposition figures had been in exile too long and could muster precious little legitimacy from the ordinary Iraqis who had stayed and survived Saddam’s wars and Western sanctions.

Al-Ali provides a list of flawed, ineffective and sometimes deliberately divisive political acts that have worsened Iraq’s politics and helped fuel the violence. He charts al-Maliki’s rising authoritarianism and shows how, in an echo (albeit a weaker one) of Saddam’s methods, he has used the security services to intimidate his opponents. He shows how al-Maliki’s government has cynically manipulated the political process and government, pretending to tackle corruption and improve services while muzzling dissent and deepening the country’s social divisions.

If there is anything missing from Al-Ali’s account, it is the performance of the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, in northern Iraq. He briefly touches on its relative success early in the book, mentioning its comparative stability and strong economic performance over the past decade. Among the Kurds, who had fought among themselves in the 1990s, there was probably a particular enthusiasm for a stable, prosperous future when Saddam was thrown out in 2003. For years now, the KRG has been stable enough that a visitor can stroll the streets of northern cities with little risk from terrorism or crime. This stability seemed in peril in September last year, when the largest and deadliest bombing in six years struck the capital, Erbil, although calm appears to have returned since then.

Still, political conditions in the region are not perfect, and contain the seeds of future trouble. Ordinary people are increasingly frustrated at the high cost of living, low wages, and the infuriating frequency and degree of corruption. Relations between the KRG and Baghdad remain tense, partly because of the unresolved status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich area that sits on the border between the KRG and the Arab areas of Iraq. Tensions have been heightened further by deals between the KRG and international oil companies, which Baghdad sees as evidence of the Kurds’ gradual move towards independence.

Al-Ali notes some of these issues – especially the tensions over oil contracts – when he examines the failure of oil policy, but he remains a little too optimistic, perhaps, about the KRG. He is right that the region is a haven compared to most of Iraq, but this is no guarantee of future stability. To date, leaders in both Baghdad and Erbil have been willing to leave the hard negotiations for some later time. They lack the stomach to try to resolve the status of Kirkuk, or agree on a national oil law, or talk about those oil contracts. But at some stage, perhaps not too far in the future, they will have to.

NEAR the end of The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, Zaid Al-Ali observes that the failures and violence in Iraq after 2003 were not preordained by the nature of the country itself. Yes, Iraq is a created state with artificial borders, but so too are dozens of stable countries around the world. In fact, there is a strong sense of nationalism in Iraq. The challenge, he says, is to build a new narrative about the Iraqi state that the people will support. This means a change in the political elite, and it means some variety of political reform: he refers to Western-style democracy, but any form of more accountable and benevolent government would help.

Whether all this is possible remains far from certain. Sadly, the litany of problems and failures presented so well in The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, and the self-interested, corrupt and entrenched nature of so many of its elites, leave little room for optimism. •