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Betrayal in Baghdad

How the World Forgot About Iraq

by PATRICK COCKBURN

It is 10 years since the start of the war in Iraq which led to the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

The diplomatic map of the world has been redrawn as a consequence. Inquiry after inquiry has studied the legality of the conflict.

Political reputations have been made and lost. But what of the country itself?

Patrick Cockburn, The Independent’s acclaimed foreign correspondent, toured Saddam’s former empire to find out what state it is in. Who have been the winners?

Who have been the losers? And have we left Iraq in a better condition than we found it?

* * *

Iraq is disintegrating as a  country under the pressure of a mounting political, social and economic crisis, say Iraqi leaders.

They add that 10 years after the US invasion and occupation the conflict between the three main communities – Shia, Sunni and Kurd – is deepening to a point just short of civil war. “There is zero trust between Iraqi leaders,” says an Iraqi politician in daily contact with them. But like many of those interviewed by The Independent for this article, he did not want to be identified by name.

The escalating crisis in Iraq since the end of 2011 has largely been ignored by the rest of the world because international attention has been focused on Syria, the Arab uprisings and domestic economic troubles. The US and the UK have sought to play down overwhelming evidence that their invasion and occupation has produced one of the most dysfunctional and crooked governments in the world. Iraq has been violent and unstable for so long that Iraqis and foreigners alike have become desensitised to omens suggesting that, bad as the situation has been, it may be about to get a great deal worse.

The record of failure of post-Saddam governments, given the financial resources available, is astounding. One of the reasons many Iraqis welcomed the fall of Saddam in 2003, whatever their feelings about foreign occupation, was that they thought that his successors would restore normal life after years of sanctions and war. To their astonishment and fury this has not happened, though Iraq now enjoys $100bn (£66bn) a year in oil revenues. In Baghdad there is scarcely a new civilian building to be seen and most of the new construction is heavily fortified police or military outposts. In Basra, at the heart of the oilfields, there are pools of sewage and heaps of uncollected rubbish in the streets on which herds of goats forage.

I was in Baghdad at the end of January when there were a couple of days of heavy rain. For years, contractors – Iraqi and foreign – have supposedly been building a new sewage system for the Iraqi capital but none of the water was disappearing down the drains. I drove for miles in east Baghdad through streets flooded with grey, murky water, diluted with sewage. I only turned round in Sadr City, the Shia working-class bastion, when the flood waters became too deep to drive through. Shirouk Abayachi, an advisor to the Ministry of Water Resources, explained to me that “since 2003, $7bn has been spent to build a new sewage system for Baghdad, but either the sewers weren’t built or they were built very badly”. She said the worst flooding had been where in theory there were new sewage pipes, while those built in the 1980s worked better, concluding that “corruption is the key to all this”.

Theft of public money and incompetence on a gargantuan scale means the government fails to provide adequate electricity, clean water or sanitation. One-third of the labour force is unemployed and, when you include those under-employed, the figure is over half. Even those who do have a job have often obtained it by bribery. “I feared seven or eight years ago that Iraq would become like Nigeria,” says one former minister, “but in fact it is far worse.” He cited as evidence a $1.3bn contract for an electricity project signed by a minister with a Canadian company that had only a nominal existence – and a German company that was bankrupt.

***

Iraqis looked for improved personal security and the rule of law after Saddam, but again this has not materialised. The violence is much less than during the mass slaughter of 2006 and 2007 when upwards of 3,000 Iraqis were being butchered every month. But Baghdad and central Iraq remains one of the most dangerous places on earth in terms of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings. It is not just political violence that darkens lives, but a breakdown of civil society that leaves people often looking to tribal justice in preference to police or official courts. One woman said that: “If you have a traffic accident, what matters is not whether you were right or wrong but what tribe you belong to.”

The same sense of insecurity in the face of arbitrary government taints political life. If there is not quite the same fear as under Saddam, it often feels as if this is only because the security forces are less efficient, not because they are any less cruel or corrupt. The rule of Nouri al-Maliki, Prime Minister since 2006, has become a near dictatorship with highly developed means of repression, such as secret prisons, and pervasive use of torture. He has sought to monopolise control over the army, intelligence service, government apparatus and budget, making sure that his supporters get the lion’s share of jobs and contracts. His State of Law Coalition won only 24 per cent of the votes in the 2010 election – 2.8 million  votes out of 19 million registered voters – but he has ruled as if he had received an overwhelming mandate.

Dr Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish leader and member of parliament, gives an excoriating analysis of what is wrong with present-day Iraq. “It is a failed state,” he says. “The country is run by gangs [within the government] and gangs are more important than law. Maliki rules because he is head of the armed forces. Iraq is run by force, but force does not mean that those exercising it are in control.”

Saddam Hussein and the US both found to their cost that Iraq can never be ruled by compulsion alone, something Mr Maliki has been slow to learn. The power of religious and ethnic communities is too great for successful coercion by the state and is underpinned by Iraqis’ loyalty to tribes, clans and extended families. When the Americans were leaving Iraq their main concern was that they would leave behind a security vacuum. But this was to mistake the nature of Iraqi politics. “The new [post-Saddam Hussein] Iraq has been built on the consensus of three communities: the Kurds, the Shia and the Sunni,” says one Iraqi leader, previously optimistic about the future of the country. “This political consensus has fractured.” He believes there is still some chance of repairing the damage, but, if this fails, he says “the end of Iraq and the division of the country will be inevitable”.

Iraqis who fought for years against Saddam Hussein, blaming most of Iraq’s ills on his regime, today express bitter disillusionment with his successors. Mustafa al-Khadimi, a veteran opponent of Saddam’s rule, says “I feel saddened and disappointed. I have given my life to destroying the old system and have seen members of my family and friends killed. Now I watch Iraq treated like a cake to be cut up between our politicians.” Others, equally despairing, criticise Mr Maliki for exacerbating and exploiting political divisions to keep power in his hands. As the pre-eminent leader of the Shia, three-fifths of the population, he alarms them by suggesting that their political dominance is under threat from the Sunni, a fifth of Iraqis, once in charge under Saddam but now marginalised. Last year, Mr Maliki sought to unite Sunni and Shia Arabs against the Kurds, another fifth of the population, by massing troops and threatening to invade Kurdish-controlled but disputed areas.

What makes these escalating conflicts so bizarre and damaging to Iraq is that they are fought by combatants who are part of the same power-sharing government. But because they don’t co-operate – and indeed hate and fear each other – government itself is paralysed. The administrative apparatus has in any case been degraded by departure of able officials abroad and the allocation of jobs solely through political patronage rather than experience or ability, membership of al-Dawa, the ruling Shia religious party often being the essential qualification. One study of Iraqi officials revealed that on average they put in just 17 minutes’ productive work during the average day. These toxic elements combine to produce a corrupt, self-serving and ineffective government. But its failings have been there a long time and might not in themselves have produced a new crisis. Party patronage may be a crude and unfair way of distributing oil wealth, but it benefits a lot of people. Iraqis may be enraged by the lack of public services such as electricity or health care, but they have suffered these shortages for a long time. By 2011 Iraq had achieved a bloody and unsatisfactory stability that might have endured longer had it not been rocked by important changes in the political balance of power inside and outside Iraq.

* * *

The last American troops left at the end of 2011 and President Barack Obama made clear by his actions that he did not intend to be inveigled back into the Iraqi political morass. Polls showed American voters had a deep distaste for any involvement in Iraq. American influence plummeted. But the Iraqi political system was in large part a US creation and many of its leaders owed their careers to US backing. This includes Mr Maliki who was appointed as Prime Minister by the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, because he was one of the few Shia politicians acceptable to the US and Iran.

Both countries, though they fight each other for influence in Iraq, have a common interest in stabilising the post-Saddam settlement. When Maliki was reappointed Prime Minister in 2010 an Iraqi official called me to comment sarcastically that “the Great Satan (US) and The Axis of Evil (Iran) have come together and given us a new prime minister”. With the US departure there disappeared a major force for persuading Iraqi leaders to agree to share power.

In their last years there, the Americans had learned how to play Iraqi political games effectively. In 2007 during the so-called Surge they had offered protection to the Sunni in return for an end to military action against US troops (al-Qa’ida continued to attack the Shia civilians and Iraqi government forces). It was always a temporary arrangement, regarded with suspicion by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Just as the last US soldiers were leaving Iraq, Mr Maliki forced his Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi to flee to Kurdistan and he was later sentenced to death.

The Sunni had suffered shattering defeats with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the formation of a Shia-Kurdish government and loss of the sectarian civil war. But the conflict in Syria marked a change for the better in Sunni fortunes. They have been emboldened by the bid for power of Syria’s Sunni majority just across the border from their own heartlands in Anbar and Nineveh provinces. They are encouraged by Sunni states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, backing Sunni rebels in Syria and sympathising with Sunni demonstrators in Iraq. Since late December Iraqi Sunni have peacefully protested against discrimination in all its forms. Maliki and his senior officials appear to be finally taking on board the significance of Sunni protests and the strength of the Sunni counter-offensive against the Shia in the Middle East. Mr Maliki predicted last week that “if the opposition [in Syria] is victorious, there will be civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq”.

The US departure, the Syrian crisis and the Sunni protests are all destabilising Iraq. The Kurds and the Shia religious leadership – the Marji’iyyah – regard Mr Maliki and his government with distrust, but the very divisions of Iraq that weaken central governments also make it difficult to get rid of those in power, because their opponents are themselves so divided. Opposed to Mr Maliki they may be, but they cannot agree on a successor.

The Shia are themselves divided. Muqtada al-Sadr, the populist nationalist cleric who fought the US occupation, has called for the removal of Maliki and has praised the demonstrators in Anbar. This is important because his well-organised political movement used to have a military wing, the Mehdi Army, feared and execrated by Sunni for carrying out atrocities against them. Muqtada recently said: “Maliki’s entire policy is offensive to the Shia because it portrays them as a tyrannous majority in the eyes of the Kurds and Sunni.”

Iraq is one of the great political minefields of the world. It is full of ancient and modern battlefields where great empires have been humbled or destroyed. Saddam Hussein claimed to have built up an army of one million men in 1991, only to see it evaporate or mutiny. Much the same happened in 2003. The US army marched into Baghdad full of arrogant contempt for what Iraqis said or did. Within a year the US military controlled only islands of territory in a country they thought they had conquered.

Maliki may employ a million men in different branches of the Iraqi security forces. In most countries this would guarantee government control, but in practice Maliki only has full authority in about half the national territory. He has no power in the northern third of the country held by the Kurds and increasingly limited influence in Sunni areas.

This does not mean the government is collapsing. It still has money, jobs, the army, intelligence services and electoral legitimacy. Qusay Abdul Wahab al-Suhail, the Sadrist deputy speaker of parliament, says that the problem in Iraq is that all parties have some degree of strength and therefore see no need to compromise with opponents. The result is a permanent political stalemate or paralysis.

Whatever the US and British invasion and occupation of Iraq 10 years ago was meant to achieve it has not created a peaceful and prosperous country. If an Iraqi was arrested before 2003 for a political offence he could expect to be tortured unless he immediately confessed, and this is still the case. The one improvement is that he stands less chance of being executed.

Ordinary Iraqis are pessimistic or ambivalent about the future. Professor Yahya Abbas says: “If you ask my students ‘What do you want?’ About 95 per cent will answer ‘I want to leave Iraq.’”

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.