Iraq: 20 Years Later

Photo Credit: Freedom House

By Chloe Vitali
Staff Writer

I was born in April of 2003. Almost exactly three weeks before that very day, U.S. armed forces invaded Iraq. That was 20 years ago. Throughout much of my childhood, I noted the confusion and anger that was bred as a result of the invasion. Regardless of where those feelings originated or were directed, it was consistently present in the media and political discourse. However, it seems that today, the attention of Americans has been turned elsewhere in the world to issues that the media and government deem more urgent than Iraq once was.

Despite the fact that the U.S. has removed its troops from the country, and we are 20 years out from George W. Bush declaring “mission accomplished,” the information we have about the Iraq war is still convoluted. As the 20th anniversary passed, content about why the U.S. invaded Iraq, the effect on U.S. foreign policy and involvement in the Middle East, and the impact it had on American veterans flooded news outlets. What was lacking from this commemoration was a dive into what Iraq looks like 20 years later: how has the country rebuilt and what does life look like for Iraqis today? 

I had the opportunity to ask these questions in an interview with Ibrahim Al-Marashi, a professor of modern Iraqi History at California State University, San Marcos. Al-Marashi says that, despite years of continued turmoil, Iraqis are better off now than they were under Saddam Hussein as well as compared to citizens of other nations in the region. However, after 300,000 Iraqi civilian deaths and extensive conflict, the country is left with fundamental issues. Though different issues confronted Iraqis under Saddam Hussein, corruption and violence still prevail. Iraq’s future will be determined by how the nation– its people and government– handle domestic political factors, international influence, and environmental threats. 

Photo Credit: The San Diego Union-Tribune
Professor Ibrahim Al-Marashi, lecturing.

Iraq’s Political System

Today’s Iraqi government is what Al-Marashi describes as a “creation of a new system… rather than a transition of state,” characterized by the same Shia elites rotating in and out of office, playing “musical chairs.” While citizens have the freedom to vote and participate in elections, their candidate options are limited to the same, few political elites. 

In attempts to prevent Iraq’s Shia and Kurdish groups from experiencing marginalization like under Saddam (a Sunni leader), the U.S. helped to create a government that does what Al-Marashi refers to as “reverse affirmative action.” Those who have emerged in government have done so because they fall into a certain religious or ethnic category, rather than having been chosen by popular opinion. As a result, citizens regard the government with little legitimacy, especially Iraq’s Sunni population who have traditionally participated very little in the government. Overall, the government is one that fosters popular discontent.

However, Iraq’s government is fairly democratic compared to other countries in the region. The fact that elections even occur, while they may lack legitimacy, is a larger demonstration of civil rights than what occurs in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran. According to Freedom House, which ranks civilians’ access to political and civil rights, Iraq is freer than Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain, and almost equally as free as Jordan. However, all of these countries are ranked in the “Not Free” category, demonstrating a strong trend in the region of lack of civil rights. 

Challenges of Ethnic Diversity

Further, Iraq, like much of the Middle East, struggles with accurately representing its ethnically diverse population. This problem originates in autocratic regimes that target certain ethnic or religious groups to maintain a hold on power. When these regimes are deposed, there is often a push to reverse the oppression it upheld by then targeting the groups that a former government identified with. 97% of the Iraqi population is Muslim, with Shia Muslims constituting almost 60% and Sunnis making up 40% of the Muslim population. Within those religious demographics exist several other ethnic populations including Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomans. 

The 2003 Invasion was especially advantageous to the Kurds who, after battling statelessness and persecution for nearly 100 years, found political recognition in the post-invasion Iraqi constitution. Currently, the Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.) controls a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq. Despite popular will to separate from the Iraqi state, Baghdad has prevented a K.R.G. secession thus far. 

But, the Kurdish population is not just present in Iraq. Kurds are a targeted minority group in Iran, Syria, and Turkey as well. Turkish military interference in K.R.G. territory has climbed since 2018. And, while the Iraqi government sees Turkish interference as useful in undermining secession movements, Turkey is after control of the natural gas and oil that it depends on which come from Iraqi Kurdistan. Both Iraq and the K.R.G. are balancing Turkish interference in their affairs. 

Source: USAID/ BBC

The International Community Vies for Influence

Another route to obtaining influence in Iraq, taken by both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, is to target Iraqi Sunnis. Al-Marashi says that Iraq’s Sunni population has become a part of the Iran-Saudi proxy war. Saudi Arabia, the predominant Sunni power in the region, has exploited the lack of Sunni representation to gain influence in Iraq. Saudi Arabia has used this to counteract Iran’s Shia influence in the country. Turkey, too, has obtained Iraqi Sunni loyalty, with heavy influence over the Iraqi parliament’s Sunni bloc. 

Al-Marashi shares that the Iraqi government is constantly balancing Iranian and U.S. influence, with Iranian influence becoming increasingly dominant in the region. He also claims that, “In the long term, Iran benefited most from [the] 2003 [invasion].” Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies agrees, stating that the toppling of Saddam Hussein allowed for Iran to permeate the Arab world, something that was not possible with Saddam in power. 

Violence and Other Consequences from the War

The war in Iraq and the subsequent fight against ISIS caused extensive damage to the already developing nations’ infrastructure and cities. Between 2003 and 2014 $220 billion was poured into reconstruction efforts. Despite this effort, approximately 4.1 million people are still in need of humanitarian aid, and estimates of the damages caused by the U.S. campaign to defeat ISIS, alone, total to $45.7 billion. Iraq has failed to utilize its natural wealth as well as aid donations due to widespread corruption within the government and its auxiliaries.

A “network” of Shia militias that controls different regions of the country allows corruption to run rampant. Iraq, which is one of the richest petro states in the region, is paradoxically beholden to corruption and international influence. These militias are recognized by the state and take charge of contested areas, creating microeconomies around smuggling and corruption of government funds. “The question you have to ask,” Al-Marashi says, “is where does the state end and the militias begin?” The everyday violence that Iraqis experience used to come from the state under Sadam, but now, while just as common, is “decentralized” and perpetrated by militias. They remain in power with the justification of preventing a resurgence of ISIS. 

While many may still conceptualize Iraq, and much of the Middle East, as a region plagued by terrorism, ISIS, “has little to offer Iraqis,” and, though it has small cells throughout the country, it has been largely defeated. Al-Marashi notes that Islamic terrorism’s impact has largely transitioned to the African Sahel. 

In my conversation with Professor Al-Marashi, when asked about the condition of human rights in the country, a pattern emerged in his answers. While human rights are more accessible, there are societal roadblocks to them being guaranteed. Al-Marashi noted that while women are allowed to join the workforce, honor killings– crimes committed against women who are perceived to taint their family’s honor by deviating from religious and societal norms– are still frequent. He also circled back to the fact that while Iraqis can vote, their candidate choices are limited. One of the biggest differences Al-Marashi pointed out was that under Saddam, Iraqis had security. While they may have lacked freedom, they knew what to expect from society and the state. Now, Iraqis are granted increased freedoms but with fewer guarantees of what the future will look like and with no protection of their rights from the state. 

Iraq is not only facing international and domestic political problems, but existential ones too. Because of Iraq’s lack of substantial infrastructure and leadership, the country is more susceptible to the impacts of climate change. In recent years, the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates has decreased, the number of sandstorms has increased, rainfall occurs less frequently, and summers have become hotter– resulting in some of the highest temperatures on earth. This, combined with political problems and economic stagnation is driving the desire many Iraqis have to leave the country, according to Al-Marashi.

A Silver Lining?

Despite these challenges, Al-Marashi says Iraq possesses a “creative, vibrant civil society.” Furthermore, the government, while sluggish to change, is not immune to it. In 2019, a successful protest movement led to the creation of a new government in 2021 and new election laws. And, in recent elections, the current system faced a successful challenge by voters. While the winning party was not permitted to form a government, and the political elites unseated in 2021 were able to make a return to power in 2023, the fact that the government was even receptive to change is something, Al-Marashi points out. 

Photo Credit: Alaa Al-Marjani/ Reuters
2019 Iraqi protests.

Iraq’s situation is fairly optimistic when compared to the situations of other nations in the region. It possesses democratic systems and is on more amicable terms with the international community than its counterparts. But, the lack of participation and receptiveness in the government, as well as the lack of effective institutions due to the corrupt dynamic between the government and militia groups is not lost on its people. 

20 years later, Iraq is a fundamentally changed place. The daily life of Iraqis no longer finds itself sprawled across U.S. news, begging questions of how U.S. involvement in a nation’s affairs determines where the international community directs its attention. Iraq faces issues that require multilateral mobilization and foreign aid, which will demand that it choose whether it will fall under Iranian or U.S. influence. 

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