On March 19, 2003, as the first US bombing of the country began, President George W. Bush promised to build a “united, stable and free” Iraq. Twenty years later, the sad legacy of that disastrous invasion is multilayered.
From the human tragedy, with at least 300,000 violent deaths in Iraq between 2003 and 2021, we move on to material legacies: a country torn apart and deeply fragmented, with shortages of basic services and where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. Then there are the institutional implications: one of the most visible legacies of the US occupation is the sectarian political system, which for years has contributed to exacerbating sectarian divisions, polluting the electoral competition. In fact reigns the patronage, with disarming corruption and millions of young people with little faith in institutions. Furthermore, armed groups have multiplied, and with them the infiltration of neighboring rival countries, making Iraq terrain of regional and international conflictsas happened first in Lebanon and later in neighboring Syria.
Internationally, the credibility of the US, and of the so-called rules-based order, have suffered a severe blow. The lies and instrumentalization of the UN Security Council to justify the invasion, the so-called “weapons of mass killing”, have undermined Washington’s moral legitimacy and exposed Western double standards (recalled in today’s debates on the war in Ukraine) in the field of international law.
A fragmented country
The new 2005 constitution has led to an explosion of sectarian-based organized parties and patronage backed by public coffers. The 2015 parties law failed to regulate either external funding or the role of armed militias linked to them, effectively undermining central authority and contributing to a deep fragmentation of the country, with particular emphasis on the rise of theIranian influence. Also there Kurdish question remains unsolved. Despite the autonomy recognized in 2005, the controversial referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017 is a further demonstration of the fragile institutional structure of post-occupation Iraq.
Il confessional system, especially during the governments of Nouri Al-Maliki (2006-2014), then turned into a strong marginalization of the Sunni minority. This sectarianization, exacerbated by the brutal attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq aimed at fomenting intra-sectarian warfare, led to peaks of violence between 2006-2008. The US troops in Iraq they increased dramatically, reaching 168,000 soldiers, before gradually decreasing until the withdrawal announced in 2011. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government repressed the demonstrations that had broken out in the Sunni center-north of the country, where the self-styled Islamic State would re-emerge in 2014 (ISIS/Daesh). ISIS, the heir to Al Qaeda in Iraq, re-entered the country from neighboring Syria, occupying a border territory the size of the United Kingdom before being defeated in a brutal campaign of reconquest that culminated in the liberation of Mosul in 2017.
From the economy to the climate threat
Closely related to the fragile political balance are the economic and climate issues. Iraq is the fifth country in the world for hydrocarbon reserves, and the fifth country most vulnerable to a climate collapse according to the UN.
Despite the improvement in the macroeconomic outlook due to the recent increase in energy prices, Iraq needs deep economic diversification. The dominance of the hydrocarbon sector has allowed Iraq to maintain a fragile balance, but it has also facilitated corruption and precluded policies of sustainable development and investment in human capital. The result is that the majority of opportunities remain in the public sector, still strongly linked to the clientelist redistribution system, which, in addition to encouraging corruption and political immobility, does not offer valid alternatives to the growing unemployment (which went from 8.1% in 2011 to 16.2% in 2021).
The challenges facing Iraq are further complicated by the climate crisis. Iraq suffers from a profound water shortage, high temperatures and growing desertification, which has reached about 40% of the country. These phenomena translate into frequent floods, sandstorms and periods of drought which contribute to worsening the living conditions of the population, in a context of lack of countermeasures both at an environmental and social level.
For a country where about 60% of the population is under the age of 25, and where poverty rates are rising along with profound water and food crises, there are many unknowns about the future. Also the popular protests of 2019which led to the government’s resignation and snap elections, did not produce the changes hoped for, with the Tishreen movement brutally repressed but still active in trying to promote a post-sectarian Iraq.
Iraq regional mediator
Despite internal weaknesses, Iraq has invested heavily in recent years to carve out a role of promoter of Middle Eastern dialogues. Positioning itself de facto in the Iranian sphere of influence, but with a strong historical and cultural anchorage to the Arab world, as well as in a complex dialogue with Turkey, Iraq plays the role of balance between various geopolitical axes in the region. For this reason, since 2020, Baghdad has assumed a role of mediator, in some ways similar to that historically covered by the small countries of the Arabian peninsula in an attempt to facilitate intra-regional dialogue.
It is in this area that the main glimmer of hope for the future can be identified. Only through one regional relaxation, based on inclusive dialogue and the principle of interdependence, it will be possible to address the multiple challenges facing Iraq and the region. These principles are at the heart of the initiative promoted by the Iraqi government and which came to life in the Baghdad conferences for regional cooperation held in 2021 in Iraq and in 2022 in Jordan.
The United States and its European partners, including Italy, will have to do everything possible to support these dialogues promoted by Iraq. The legacy of the last twenty years, in Iraq, as in Afghanistan, but also in the tragedies in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Palestinehave deeply undermined the regional order and with it Western credibility in the region. Entire generations have grown up in a Middle East that has become synonymous with wars, terrorism and destruction. Today the priority is to rebuild and mend. It is in this area that Europe and the United States should concentrate their efforts, developing a pragmatic approach capable of supporting a future of integration and reconciliation in the Middle East. This is the best antidote to conflict and radicalization, elements attributable to the disastrous invasion, a decision which for twenty years condemned Iraq and the region to a long and painful convalescence.
Cover photo EPA/IRAQI PARLIAMENT MEDIA OFFICE