The US has a historic responsibility for the misery that has been unleashed on Iraq, and it has the power to set things right.
In Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, Satan, full of vanity, greed and arrogance, utters the famous line: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” And that about accurately sums up the attitude of your average holder of political power in Iraq, two decades after the United States and its allies invaded and occupied the country in the name of democracy, freedom and prosperity.
Rather than the open, transparent democracy that gave a voice to the people, Iraqis are instead now at the mercy of a fantastically corrupt cabal of political elites, almost all of whom are beholden to the interests of foreign powers, principally the US and neighbouring Iran. They have turned Iraq into a veritable Hell, with sectarianism, exploitation and non-state and state-sponsored violence the norm.
Obviously, this is a far cry from the promises made by former President George W Bush. On the eve of the invasion, he gave a speech and made a vow: “We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free. In a free Iraq, there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbours, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, and no more torture chambers and rape rooms. The tyrant will soon be gone. The day of your liberation is near.”
As the record has shown, there were no “poison factories”, nor was there any “apparatus of terror” in Iraq – at least, there wasn’t until after the invasion. Not only did Al-Qaeda establish a foothold in the chaos created by invading Western forces, but they eventually morphed into Daesh and set the entire country and region ablaze in 2014 when they conquered nearly a third of Iraq, necessitating a costly international response that has yet to end.
In terms of building an Iraq that is free and devoid of torture chambers and rape rooms, let us not forget that the first industrial-scale torture and rape facility in post-Baathist Iraq was actually set up by the US itself, with the horrifying Abu Ghraib scandal shining a bright light on the dark underbelly of American “state-building” efforts.
However, it was not just the US that was responsible for such horrific crimes, but also their new allies that they had just installed in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Many senior Iraqi politicians who were supported by Washington, including the Tehran-backed former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, were diehard Shia extremists who saw any expression of Sunni self-determination as a personal affront that had to be violently stamped out.
He and his allies – many of whom are directly involved with Iran-sponsored militias – embarked on a campaign of sectarian repression that is comparable to the evils unleashed by ISIS. For example, the Sunni town of Jurf al-Sakhr, just southwest of the capital, was subjected to a sectarian cleansing campaign in 2014 under the excuse of liberating the town from ISIS.
We are now in 2023, and not only have the original inhabitants not been allowed to return to their homes but the town has been occupied by the families of Shia militants and renamed Jurf al-Nasr in a brazen attempt at erasing its identity and history – evidence of possible genocide.
All of this violence and sectarianism is bad enough, but it says nothing about the lack of prosperity that was promised by Bush. Despite holding the world’s fifth largest proven oil reserves, according to data from the Iraqi planning ministry, 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. So deep is the nepotism and corruption that siphons off the country’s natural resource wealth that, according to the yearly Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International, Iraq is a regular contender for the world’s most corrupt country.
Effectively, this has had the predictable outcome of a gradually dwindling turnout in elections. In December 2005, turnout was a respectable 79.6 percent. However, every poll thereafter has shown a decrease in voter appetite, with the last election in 2021 drawing an abysmal 36 percent that was later revised to 43 percent by the Iraqi electoral commission – a figure that is doubted due to the very corruption outlined above.
What this tells us is that Iraqis have lost faith in the lie they were being sold. Many people, myself amongst them, voted in the first legislative elections and thought, despite our misgivings, we would give the new system a fair shake. However, the truth is a frightening and ghastly reality. There simply is no democracy in Iraq, and it is high time the international community, and principal among them the US, made good on its promises made two decades ago.
Despite the rising power of China and Russia, the US is still the most powerful country in the world and can, if it chooses, set red lines that are enforced. The Iraqi government needs to know that if it does not take real action to combat the very ills that have turned it into the hellscape that it is today, then there will be repercussions and the US will disfavour the politicians it helped install in power in Baghdad by letting them ride on the backs of coalition tanks in the first place.
We know the US has no problem with issuing ultimatums and demands, as it played that role to perfection when Saddam was in power and elsewhere. The US has a historic responsibility for the misery that has been unleashed on Iraq, and it has the power to set things right. Let us not pretend that America is now too squeamish and powerless to demand progress on the rights every Iraqi hopes to one day have, rights that are far too often taken for granted in countries such as the US. It most certainly can – I just doubt it will or even cares enough to try.