Iraq’s future hanging by a thread

Iraqis now have greater physical security, though violence continues and politics are stalemated. But the years of conflict have corroded trust, entrenched sectarian identities, undermined livelihoods, and ravaged the environment. Zaid Al-Ali, travelling through Iraq, finds a society under intense stress whose human and national bonds are frayed - but far from broken.

Iraq has since 2008 retreated from the brink of collapse, though it still remains perilously close to the precipice. There are daily attacks, such as the explosion in Baghdad on 17 August 2010 which targeted a queue of young men waiting to apply to join the army. At the same time, violence has greatly receded, allowing the state some opportunity to resume its functions.

However, the real threat to Iraq’s future continues to be its current ruling elite, which has demonstrated beyond question its unwillingness and inability to seize that opportunity by improving living standards for the vast majority of the population. The result is that Iraq’s bureaucracy, its public sector and its environment amongst other things remain in a dangerous state of decline. Barring a miracle, the state will quickly lose whatever legitimacy it has managed to salvage from the wreckage of the civil conflict of the mid-2000s, opening the door to new and reinvigorated challenges.

During conversations with friends, colleagues and relatives, in each of my recent visits to Iraq, there was an undeniable sense of disappointment with the manner in which the state has evolved since 2003, and a weary disinterest in the government formation talks that are currently ongoing in Baghdad. It is an open question as to whether the country’s recently elected parliament, and the government that has yet to be formed, will be capable of meeting these challenges. Based on their current track record, the prospects appear very dim.

A provisional security

If there is one factor that has allowed for the re-establishment of some normalcy in Iraq it is the reconstruction of the Iraqi army. The decision taken by the United States occupation authorities in May 2003 to dissolve the army has been heavily criticised for various reasons, but one of the least discussed implications was that it left the country without an effective policing force for years.

150,000 US soldiers could never hope to secure a country of 27 million people, and protect the local population from ordinary or organised crime, let alone from militias. Their numbers were too low and were, in any event, incapable of communicating with the local population or understanding the society that they were trying to govern. They could not even appreciate the consequences of their own decisions, and it showed in their every day dealings with state and society. On one occasion in the early days of the occupation, American officials inadvertently dissolved the Board of Supreme Audit, Iraq’s supreme audit institution and one of its oldest state agencies, established in 1927 during the days of the original British occupation. It took them months to realise what they had done and re-establish the board.

Meanwhile, policing quickly became dangerously inefficient in the country: trigger happy soldiers detained thousands based on flimsy assumptions and often gunned down entire families that were merely commuting from one home to another or farmers tending their fields, while allowing armed groups and criminals to roam throughout the country with relative ease.

My first encounter with American soldiers in Iraq took place in 2004 and was illustrative of their level of involvement with society. My cousin and I were driving through one of Baghdad’s many highways and were stopped by a US military vehicle. We pulled over and were approached by three soldiers who pointed at the trunk. Iftah, they said (“open” in Arabic). After briefly inspecting the vehicle, they again enquired, asliha? (their way of asking if we were carrying any weapons). The more senior of the three ordered the others to ask if anyone of us spoke English. I remained silent and the soldiers, who were incapable of taking the conversation any further, allowed us to move on.

It was during that time that militias seized control over large swathes of the country, disengaging and relocating to other cities and areas whenever the US military appeared on the scene.In parts of the country, sometimes within short distances of the infamous Green Zone, armed groups set up checkpoints in broad daylight and reigned over the local population with total impunity. For years, Iraqis would leave home not knowing if they would return in one piece. Driving through the capital’s streets could be lethal and there was close to nothing Iraqis could do to protect themselves from the danger. It was also during that time that the US occupation suffered the most attacks on their presence, at one point bringing them close to defeat.

In Iraqi hands

By 2009, the Iraqi army had been reconstituted, and its various units (far more numerous than the US military in Iraq ever was) were in control of much of the country. In Baghdad, Najaf, Tikrit, Basra and many other cities, it is today the only presence on the streets. Some armed groups continue to operate, but can no longer do so openly. The major difference is that the army is made up of soldiers from the country that understand its people and can identify criminal activity through indicators that American soldiers could never understand.

In December 2009, I had dinner with two friends in Abu Nawas, Baghdad’s most famous nightspot which straddles along the Tigris river.  At an hour past midnight, we drove back to the Amariya district where a robbery had just taken place and the Iraqi army was searching for the culprits. A group of soldiers spotted our vehicle and hailed us. “Do you live here?”, one of the soldiers asked. The driver responded that he did. More questions followed: “On what street? How long have you lived here? What is your father’s name? Who do you know on your street?” Within a few minutes, the soldiers politely waved us through, persuaded that the driver did genuinely live in the neighbourhood and was not criminally inclined.  It was the type of conversation that a US soldier could never hope to have in Iraq.

During the civil conflict, driving north from Baghdad to Tikrit could be deadly. What should normally have been a two hour drive could often take half a day or longer, as American forces engaged in battles along the way. Today over sixty Iraqi army checkpoints dot the highway. Drivers have to slow down as they approach, and nine times out of ten the soldiers will waive them through. Where a vehicle is stopped, the soldiers will inspect the vehicle and the passengers’ identification cards within less than a minute.

The various checkpoints are also in constant contact with each other, and each will provide warnings to the others of any suspicious activity that should be investigated. Regional accents are easily identifiable throughout the country, and it is obvious to any Iraqi, including those that would be driving to Tikrit, that many of the soldiers manning the checkpoints along the highway are from the (mainly Shi’a) south of the country. Interaction with commuters is consistently smooth and friendly. Similarly, the highway south from Baghdad to Najaf is lined with over seventy of its own checkpoints, also manned by soldiers from the entire country, and also fair in their treatment with commuters.

From 2003 to 2008, citizens trying to reach Najaf from Baghdad would sometimes be forced to travel through Latifiyah, one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the world. Drivers would recite Qur’anic prayers as they entered the area, pleading with God to allow them to make their way safely. Dozens of burned-out cars would line the road.  Today, it is entirely peaceful, manned only by the Iraqi army, which allows Iraqis to make their way to the south without difficulty.

Despite these improvements, there are dangerous gaps in the system.  The most obvious is the army’s continued use of a fake bomb-detector that is so infamous that it most commonly referred to as a ‘magic wand’.  They are especially in use in each of the capital’s many checkpoints – drivers have to slow down as a soldier walks alongside their vehicle, holding an antenna horizontally to see if it tilts slightly towards the vehicle, in which case the driver will be asked to open the trunk.

Baghdad residents have for some time been aware that the managing director of the British company that originally sold the devices to the Iraqi state was recently arrested in the United Kingdom for fraud, and that it has been referred to as worse than useless by international security experts. Nevertheless, the detector was still in use a few days ago throughout the country - the process is so ridiculous that it has become a source of great derision for the general population. The fact that large-scale explosions no longer occur as often is a mystery to many, but despite the obvious failings of some key security procedures, a number of factors (including the presence of an indigenous army on the streets) has successfully reduced the window of opportunity within which criminal elements can operate.

An identity crisis

The civil conflict is now largely over, but it has left an unmistakable mark on Iraqis as a whole. Every family was affected in one way or the other. Some were forced to flee their homes, some lost loved ones, while others were forced to cower inside while corpses lined their streets, with no one available to remove them for days or even weeks.

A sense of fear of “the other” is still palpable throughout the country. I recently discussed with relatives in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, the possibility of visiting family friends in Nassariya, a Shi’a city in southern Iraq. “You can go”, my uncle replied, “but I won’t join you. I’m scared”. I protested that we would be under the protection of a very old friend, who is well established in his province, in the same way that he would be under my uncle’s protection if he were to visit Tikrit. “You are right, if he were to travel here, there would be no danger, but I can’t travel to the south. I’m worried about what might happen if they find out where I’m from and where I live. It wouldn’t be safe for me."

The next day, I travelled to Najaf, one of Shi'a Islam’s holiest sites, with a friend. We entered the Imam Ali compound as soon as we arrived and were greeted by one of the mosque’s security officials. I relayed my uncle’s fear of travel to the south to him and asked for his impression. “Tell him that he is wrong and that people from Anbar, Tikrit and other Sunni areas visit Najaf all the time”, he said. “We sometimes go out of our way to make sure that they feel welcome. But we cannot travel to Sunni areas, especially Tikrit. We are scared of what they would do to us if they found out that we are Najafis.” Being at home is seemingly enough to make Iraqis feel secure, but each neighbourhood or town appears to have been transformed into a fortress of sorts.

Change can also be felt in the manner in which different parts of the country identify themselves and how they choose to manifest that identity. Religious pilgrimages to Shi’a shrines had been restricted and sometimes cancelled for supposed security concerns under the former regime. Now, several times a year, daily life in many parts of the country comes to a virtual halt and the ground shakes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of believers marching for days to pray at a particular holy site. During that time, the streets are covered in makeshift tents, in which pilgrims are served meals and where they can rest for as long as they choose and move on when they see fit. Flags marking the religious ceremony line the streets. Shi’a prayers are broadcast from loudspeakers at every street corner.

Anmar, a resident from Fallujah, a nearby town which is almost exclusively Sunni, has been a frequent visitor to Baghdad for decades. During the pilgrimage to commemorate the death of Imam Kadhim in July 2010, he said: “Baghdad seems strange to me now. It’s not like the city that I used to visit. It has changed to the point that I don’t know if I feel at home anymore.” And it is easy to understand why as soon as you visit non-Shi’a areas of the country during any of the pilgrimages: life continues without interruption, there are no flags or posters to mark the festivities, with the pilgrims only making brief appearances on people’s television sets.

Under the Iraqi sky

Nevertheless, despite the civil conflict and its undeniable consequences, and despite armchair analysis from commentators in Washington and London who insist that Iraq is an artificial construct waiting to fall apart, a strong sense of community exists that binds Iraqis together. Sectarian identity is unquestionably important to many Iraqis, but it would be a gross misunderstanding to assume that attitudes and opinions can be predicted solely according to that one factor. Iraqis of all walks of life abhor discussion of sectarianism and eschew all forms of discrimination on the basis of religion, and evoke Lebanon (a country famous for its sectarian divisions) as a precedent that should be avoided. 

During one of my recent trips to Iraq, an important tribal figure in the city of Najaf welcomed a visiting Tikriti at the end of the Ashura pilgrimage in December 2009 by placing his hand on his head, a sign of respect in this part of the world. “This is your home”, he said. “I have been to Tikrit dozens of times. I have always been welcomed there with the deepest amount of respect. Its people will always be welcome in Najaf.”

In July 2010, I spoke with farmers who had left their lands in Diyala, Tamim and Ninewa provinces because of drought and resettled in Salah Al Din province. They were all Sunni, but had nothing but sympathy for their Shi’a countrymen and fellow farmers south of Baghdad. “Our situation is bad, but theirs is much worse. God help them”, a distraught farmer from Tamim province told me. Government officials in Tikrit, the capital of Salah Al Din complained to me of the state of service delivery in their province.

I asked if they considered that they were being treated unfairly by the central government, which is largely dominated by Shi’a parties. “There is no sense of discrimination in the system. We have been given our fair share of the annual state budget. The problem is due to our own failure to perform and corruption in our province”, they replied. I asked Anmar from Fallujah whether, considering the changes that had taken place, he has felt any difference in the way he is treated by his Shi’a friends and colleagues. “All my social and business relations have remained the same”, he said. “There is no difference in treatment.”

Iraqis are also engaging in active efforts to rebuild links with each other.  Weeks prior to the March 2010 elections, a leading religious authority in Najaf called a press conference to denounce the minister of education, a leading member of the ruling Dawa Party. “The Marja’iya cannot remain silent in the face of actions of this kind. Mr Khuzai has introduced a school textbook which for the first time in our country distinguishes between Sunni and Shi’a. He is not deserving of the people’s support”, he said.

The president of the Iraqi journalists association, a Shi’ite, recently visited Tikrit from Baghdad for the first time in more than four years in order to oversee the local chapter’s elections. A delegation travelled to Samarra to escort him to the local chapter’s headquarters, where they had prepared a high profile welcome for him, in order to reassure the man that he has nothing to fear in their province. Initiatives of this kind abound in Iraq, motivated by a desire to re-establish old ties and to maintain the real social unity that binds the country together.

A dying landscape

If all of the above is reason for some comfort, Iraq is still facing a dangerous and depressing reality: the state has failed to improve the delivery of services to the general population, severely damaging its legitimacy. The impact on the state of three wars, decades of dictatorship, a thirteen-year international embargo accompanied by an incessant bombing campaign by the United States and the United Kingdom, seven years of occupation and a devastating civil conflict should not be underestimated.

The state has not just stagnated - it has regressed by leaps and bounds, during a time when much of the rest of the world has moved forward. Government departments have been gutted of their staff and those they have been left are either insufficient or under-qualified. Furthermore, the state’s procedures and bureaucracy are prehistoric and designed to make every Iraqi citizen’s life a misery.

The most dramatic transformation has taken place in the countryside, which today is but a shadow of its former self. Iraq’s agricultural sector is heavily reliant on the two great rivers that flow through the country, and its environment is dependent on the success of its agricultural sector. Rainfall has been in steady decline throughout the region for some time, and a number of major upstream dams have been constructed in Iran, Syria and Turkey, increasing the importance of irrigation for agriculture. However, irrigation requires pumps to extract water from any number of rivers, or engines to drill water wells, and sprinklers to disperse the water on the relevant crops, all of which require electricity, something that is now only scantily available in Iraq.

The state today only provides a few hours of electricity a day to its citizens, forcing farmers to seek out alternative sources of power, including private generators that are both unreliable and expensive. As a result of loan conditionalities imposed by the International Monetary Fund in the post-war period, state subsidies on gasoline and other items have been eliminated, forcing Iraqis to purchase their gas at international market prices, as a way to counter the significant amount of smuggling that was taking place previously.

However, the failure to soften the blow on the agricultural sector effectively put thousands of farmers out of business overnight.  Then, as foodstuffs from heavily subsidised and mechanised Syria and Saudi Arabia continued flowing unimpeded through the border, those farmers that could afford the extra cost of generators and gasoline could in any event never hope to compete with the cheaper foreign produce.

The consequences, across the country, are plain to see. Shops are now lined with foreign goods, a boon for the ordinary consumer but catastrophic for the country’s economy. Watermelons from Syria, apples from the United Kingdom, bananas from central America, canned foods from Turkey. Even dates, traditionally Iraq’s largest agricultural export and part of the country’s national heritage, are today imported from Saudi Arabia. Many of the date-palm trees that have survived the ravages of drought and economic hardship are no longer cultivated, their fruit hanging redolently as a sad reminder of what used to be.

All the farmers that I spoke to were clear as to the reasons for their predicament. “In these circumstances, we simply can’t make a profit.  Syrian goods are subsidised and we have no government support.” In what was once a lush countryside, entire farms are now bone-dry - trees have been felled for firewood and irrigation canals have either been dismantled and sold for their raw material or are filled with garbage when they are still intact. Finally, the agricultural sector has been robbed of its youth, all of whom are vying to join the ranks of the police or the army, both of which now pay far more than what a farmer could ever hope to earn.

As if all of the above wasn’t enough, the decline of Iraq’s agricultural sector has contributed to a number of other ominous phenomena, including accelerating desertification, and the increasingly common occurrence of dust-storms. As more and more land is being abandoned to the elements without any form of support from the state, what was previously cultivable land is fast being transformed into desert. And as the annual winds continue to blow, they carry with them increased amounts of dust and sand, burying entire villages beneath dunes that are by now meters high.

I recently visited farmland near Beiji, on the border area between Salah Al-Din and Kirkuk. There I found farmers that had been displaced because of the changes to the country’s climate. A farmer from the Ninewa plains described what made him leave his province: “our village was buried under sand eight months ago. We came here, hoping to make a living. The land here is acceptable, but we’re too far away from the Tigris to obtain any water from there. We’ve dug a well, but the water is salty. We’re not sure it will be enough.” The farmer and his family of eight were living in a two-roomed mud hut, the nearest house, tree or road was around a kilometre away. There were others that had arrived from Dyala and Kirkuk provinces, all in search of lands that could still be cultivated.

Worse still are the dust-storms,which previously would take place once or twice a year, but can now occur at a rate of once or twice a week during summer. In July 2009, I was in Iraq for a week and only managed to see past my own hand for a single afternoon when the dust cleared slightly. The rest of the time, the world is a red-tinged haze.

The impact on the local population is too great to measure. Schools, universities, businesses and other institutions have to close, given that most students and staff cannot travel with such low visibility. Emergency rooms fill up with children and asthmatics struggling to breathe through the dust. The morgues fill with those that don’t make it to hospital in time. Airports close, sometimes for days, for lack of visibility. Meetings and trips abroad are cancelled at the last minute, often delaying progress on official business and making an impossibility out of recreation. And the dust covers everything, including plants, gardens, cars, furniture, books, computers. Farmers complain that the affliction is yet another plague that they have to overcome: their produce cannot breathe under the thick swathe of dust.

Meanwhile, city-dwellers have long given up trying to seal up their windows or to double glaze - nothing can stop the encroaching dust from enveloping the inside of their homes. Within a few hours, a house can be made to look like it has been abandoned for decades. The battle to keep their homes clean has resulted in an increased prevalence of back-pains, rheumatism and arthritis for many women. Some doctors complained to me that they are struggling to keep their patients off valium.

A frozen state

Iraqis have, for years now, been decrying the state’s failure to respond to this crisis. There isn’t even any agreement between Iraq’s ruling elite as to the cause of the problem, let alone what possible solutions could be applied. The government merely argues that it is so preoccupied with security that other concerns, including projects to increase electricity production, halt desertification, the dust-storms and rural flight, must be de-prioritised.

However, as the years continue to fly by, as violence remains relatively under control (despite an upsurge1 over the past month) and elections are conducted without any debate or policy initiatives on these issues, security has started to sound more like an excuse than a justification for the failure to act. To add insult to injury, Iraq’s ruling elite clearly does not understand the depth of the crisis, nor does it accept its share of the responsibility. The former minister of electricity, recently forced from office after a series of violent protests over the poor supply of electricity, said during his bitter resignation speech that the government’s performance was not at fault. The problem rather was that Iraqis “are not sufficiently patient”.

In a stunning turnaround however, a change in policy was decided on 6 August 2010, though not in response to Iraq’s difficulties. Dust-storms, it turns out, are highly mobile and do not respect national borders; they have been finding their way into Iran, where they have also caused visibility, economic and health issues. Iranian researchers have found higher instances of silicon-dioxide, calcium, potassium, and carbon in the air, which they argue have been increasing respiratory diseases in the country. As a result, during a meeting in Tehran, the Iraqi deputy minister for the environment agreed to participate in a number of joint initiatives to solve the problem.

In other words, a solution is finally being explored by the Iraqi government, but only in response to concerns being expressed by a foreign nation, and not in response to the needs of its own citizens. The danger will now necessarily be that whatever projects that will be implemented will be designed merely with the interests of non-Iraqis at heart, and that Iraq’s agricultural sector will be damaged even further.

And that is the real irony of post-war Iraq: the state was supposed to have been transformed into a beacon of democracy in the Arab region, and yet Iraq’s new ruling authorities have done close to nothing to reform the myriad rules or to solve the problems that have made the lives of the vast majority of Iraqis utterly miserable, to the extent that to this day democratic Iraq is more corrupt and less responsive to its people's needs than despotic Syria and Iran.

A prime example is the manner in which the state treats its exiled population, which it officially encourages to return and contribute to the reconstruction effort. As a result of a prehistoric bureaucracy and corruption that has now spiralled completely out of control, the only way that a formerly exiled Iraqi can reacquire his or her status as a national is to bribe his way through the system. And if an Iraqi citizen chooses to bring non-Iraqi relatives to visit in order to decide whether to resettle in the country, they are often shocked to discover that before leaving they must have their blood tested for HIV-Aids in a government run hospital, have the results certified by the ministry of health, provide the certified results to the residency department at the local police station, provide fingerprints, sign dozens of forms, and have the entire file reviewed by the police station’s chief officer.

Even that does not guarantee that non-Iraqis will be able to leave, as airport officials often decide at their own discretion that particular procedures have not been satisfied and send their victims back to Baghdad to renew a particular stamp or obtain an additional signature.

All public services are now victim to this same form of disregard. During my first visit to Iraq in 2004, relatives who had been practising medicine in some of the country’s most prestigious public hospitals lamented that they were not being provided with the needed medicines to treat what should have been minor ailments. “The country is poor, we have no money”, they told me.

In January 2010, I visited the children’s ward in a Baghdad hospital. A doctor who had been practicing there for over a year, opened their medicine cabinet for my benefit – a small number of pills and vials lined the shelves. “That’s all we have to treat hundreds of children a day”, he said. The explanation? “The country is poor, we have no money”, he answered with an unmissable touch of sarcasm, clearly suggesting fraud and corruption were the cause, given the massive increase in government revenue since 2004.

All my friends, colleagues and relatives with health trouble and who have the means to do so travel abroad to be treated, including to Syria and Iran, citing instances in Iraq of unnecessary amputations, incorrect prescriptions, and generally unhygienic conditions as the main motivations for their seeking treatment outside their own country.

But it is the country’s electricity crisis that has everyone throughout the country crawling out of their skin. In the absence of electricity, the summer heat turns every home into an unlivable sauna where study, relaxation and sleep are simply not possible. On a blistering summer day in July 2010, my cousin Ali spent four hours in his Baghdad shop without enough electricity to power a fan, and then laboured for close to eight hours under the blazing sun trying to replace the private generator that had powered his home but had surrendered to the heat earlier that day. His young children and elderly mother breathed a deep sigh of relief when he finally secured an alternative source of energy late that afternoon. His face red with anguish, his jaw tense, he stared past me and said “life in Iraq is a constant struggle”.

Even as they continue to work to keep their country together, Iraqis seem to have given up any hope in their current ruling elite, as well as in the United States administration that had promised so much. There is no sign that the elite has the will or capacity to understand how heavily the constant struggle weighs, let alone work to alleviate it.

About the author

Zaid Al-Ali is a senior adviser on constitutional building for International IDEA. He has been following the transition processes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt closely, and was previously involved in Iraq. His latest book is "The Struggle for Iraq's Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy." He tweets @zalali

Read On

Charles Tripp, A History of Iraq (Cambridge University Press, 3rd edition, 2007)

Niqash / politics

Gareth Stansfield, Iraq: People, History, Politics (Polity, 2007)

More On

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar, specialising in international commercial arbitration and comparative constitutional law. From 2005-10, he advised on constitutional, parliamentary and judicial reform in Iraq

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"Iraq - the lost generation" (6 October 2004)

"The end of secularism in Iraq" (17 May 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere" (13 October 2005)

"Iraq's war of elimination" (20 August 2006)

"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith" (25 October 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (7 May 2007)

"Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007)

"What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

"The Cairo speech: Arab Muslim voices" (8 June 2009) - with Karim Kasim

"Iraq: face of corruption, mask of politics" (2 July 2009)

"Iraq: new alliances, old repression" (3 September 2009)