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Iraq Ten Years On - a Troubled Past and Unpredictable Future

Commentary, 21 March 2013
Middle East and North Africa
Iraq is as volatile as it was after the fall of Saddam in 2003. Politics are fought along sectarian lines, and grievances run deep. Nevertheless, Iraq remains united and has the potential to be a regional, and democratic, powerhouse.

'Give it five years, ten years maximum, and Iraq will be in a great position'. Some variation of this assessment was often heard in 2003 as the United States-led coalition began its offensive on Iraq. Regardless of whether they supported or opposed the war, the thinking amongst many Iraqis was that the potential of their country - with its strategic location, immense wealth and educated population - meant that not only would Iraq recover but that it would excel within a few years.

Ten years have passed since the war on Iraq, waged at first on a false claim of the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction and later on the assumption that Iraq can be a beacon of freedom and success if freed from the shackles of dictatorship. A decade on, and not only has Iraq not fulfilled its potential, it has on many levels regressed. Suffering from a system that was instilled by the Coalition Provisional Authority and based on sectarian divisions that feed into the interests of sectarian parties. Iraq's national interest has often been lost in the struggles of parties and militias over power and privilege.

From 2003, Iraqis have been treated as different factions to be played out against each other, often to the advantage of regional powers exploiting sectarian and ethnic differences in the country.  Iraq's Paralysed Politics As inflammatory rhetoric and political bickering once more paralyse Iraq's politics, this failed system threatens to give way to violence. In the past few weeks, Iraq's fragile national unity government has all but unravelled, with various factions in a stand-off with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. As Iraqis marked the ten year anniversary of the war, they had to contend with the current state of failed politics, including the fact that the Iraqi Minister of Finance Rafi' Al-Issawi was barricaded in Anbar province fearing for his life and with Kurdish ministers including the Minister of Foreign Affairs Hoshiyar Zebari boycotting government meetings and remaining in the Kurdish region. Moreover, the Ministers of the Sadrist movement, led by the firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada AlSadr, announced their decision this week to suspend participation in the government.

The political tensions in Iraq today compound the troubles that have been facing Iraqis for the last decade - from car bombs ripping out dozens of lives at a time, to the eleventh hellish summer approaching with accompanying electricity cuts. And yet, the biggest problem thus far in Iraq has been the failure to foster and protect Iraqis as citizens with rights and responsibilities. The considerations of citizens are only acknowledged in times of elections, and in that case they are pushed to identify along basic sectarian and ethnic lines. The false lines drawn on ethnicity and sect have pushed out those whose identity is first and foremost as Iraqis, marginalising and alienating those who do not fall into the crude Sunni, Shia and Kurdish labels used since 2003 for political purposes. Many point to the fact that parties divided along sectarian lines are the ones that Iraqis vote for. However the experiment of Al-Iraqiya, a mutli-sect political party list which won the majority of votes in 2010 (with 91 of 325 seats in parliament) with Members of Parliament elected from across the country, proved that a large cross-section of Iraqis were looking for national politicians rather than those standing on a sectarian platform. Nevertheless, the political system ruling Iraq meant that a coalition formed on sectarian lines after the election results were announced, was able to form the government (with 89 seats) instead of those who obtained the larger number of seats in parliament. This highlights once again that the obstacle to national politics in Iraq is ingrained in the political system, rather than simply sectarian polarisation in the country.Furthermore, the failure and even the sabotage of state institutions like the judiciary, trade unions, and independent oversight bodies has resulted in a lack of institutional checks and balances, thus allowing power to corrupt in Iraq at the largest scale. 

While it is crucial to keep in mind that Iraq's troubles in no way started in 2003 - Saddam's tyranny, the Iraq-Iran war, the invasion of Kuwait and sanctions all dealt terrible blows to the country over the past four decades - nevertheless the powers in charge after the 2003 war dismantled Iraqi state institutions and failed to stop political and financial corruption that continue to plague Iraq.

Prospects for a United Iraq

However, the silver lining in the clouds that continue to loom large over Iraq is that, despite all these challenges, Iraqis came back from the brink of civil war in 2007. Moreover, they have maintained a unified country despite all the predictions of its breakup.  Now, Iraqis have a chance in April local elections and next year's general elections to forge a new path. It won't be easy as the incumbents have an advantage, but if voter turnout is maintained and elections continue to be fair and transparent, there is hope to create some changes via the ballot box - something Iraqis never had prior to the 2003 war. While there is large criticism of many aspects of the 2003 war, one of the saving graces was considered to be the fact that Iraqis could now go to the ballot boxes to determine their future. Yet, on the day of the tenth anniversary of the war, the Iraqi central government announced that the provincial government elections slated for April would be postponed in Anbar and Nineweh. This decision, made on the backdrop of continued demonstrations in the provinces, will have significant repercussions. It once more signals the divisions between Iraq's provinces and the discrepancy in political stability between them. It is also an indicator of how political solutions in the country are often based on short-term measures rather than real reforms to tackle long-standing grievances. Furthermore, this allows regional powers, primarily Iran and Turkey, to take advantage of internal struggles to play different groups off each other inside Iraq.

Feeling vulnerable, many parties and militias turn to these regional powers to get political and financial support to fight domestic battles in the constant struggle for power and influence inside Iraq. Newspaper headlines and hour long documentaries over the past few weeks have revisited the causes of the 2003 war, with many pundits rehashing old arguments or trying to present new positions. Others have used the Iraq war as an example of why, or why not, to intervene militarily, with contrasts drawn with Syria.  And while all these discussions are important for various reasons - including holding accountable those who make decisions of war and peace that affect millions - it is pertinent to look to the future.

The promises of a better future are often referred to in terms of economic benefits related to Iraq's vast oil wealth, with close to 3 million barrels a day in output and expectations for that figure to rise to 9 million barrels a day within five years. However, thus far these figures have only added to Iraq's troubles, both in terms of the use of oil wealth for corrupt internal purposes and exploitation from abroad. Iraq's potential in agriculture, tourism, academic development and as a regional powerhouse is far more significant. Yet, as has happened in the past decade, all these possible avenues of prosperity are on hold as unpredictable forces of political infighting and violence grip the country. In order to make sure that the next decade will hold brighter days for Iraq, the ghosts of the past must be laid to rest.The present and future must be based on a national consensus to embrace an Iraq for all, with rights and responsibilities as citizens, not sectarian and ethnic labels exploited for political ends.

Mina Al-Oraibi is Assistant Editor in Chief of Asharq Alawsat Newspaper, a daily pan-Arab newspaper. An Iraqi-Briton, Al-Oraibi has spent the previous decade reporting on the Middle East, and on US and European policies towards the region.  Al-Oraibi is a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Arab World, and was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2009. She can be contacted on twitter @AlOraibi

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