When the departure of American forces was followed with a spate of bombings in Baghdad and the fleeing of Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni leader, some feared the move would ultimately be seen as having sparked a civil war. That is unlikely. The US military has played a minimal role in Iraq in recent years and its withdrawal will not make sectarian conflict any more or less likely. But what the increased tensions in Baghdad have revealed is the deeper flaws in the nature of the state the Americans have left behind.
The US-led occupation may have produced a constitution and relatively free elections, but the mechanics of the Iraqi state remain unchanged from the days of Saddam Hussein. The Byzantine oil ministry, the top-heavy bureaucracy, the endemic corruption and the brutal security agencies remain part of a system designed for central control and repression. The Shia have the power now, not the Sunni who dominated under Saddam, but neither group seems capable of power-sharing, as shown by Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s recent effort to arrest Mr Hashimi, his Sunni vice-president. Systemic changes are still needed to establish a meaningful democracy.
The US’s ham-fisted efforts to rebuild the state from scratch mostly failed, and the Americans wasted a year laying out grand ambitions without delivering. Had the Americans held elections in 2003, rather than a year later, they might have been able to engage a broad swath of Iraqis quickly with the rebuilding project. Such an approach would have required sensitivity and a readiness to engage with Iraqis on their own terms. It also would have required extensive pre-war planning. None of those things happened. In America’s secretive rush into its first experiment with nation-building, little time was spent understanding how Iraqis could lead a more inclusive type of government.
Those who still support the war argue that getting rid of Saddam was justification for all that happened subsequently. It seems a high price to pay, particularly in light of the Arab spring. What would Iraq have looked like now without a US-led invasion? An uprising in southern Iraq and the Kurdish north against Saddam’s rule would have been likely, and, given the UN approved no-fly zones already in place, western air support for rebels would have been easier to rally. A war would have been bloody, but the same fears were raised before the Libyan intervention. In fact, the relatively long time it took to overthrow Gaddafi gave time for opposition leaders to emerge and for tribal and political alliances to be forged.
In rushing to overthrow Saddam in 2003, the US assumed responsibility for putting the country back together and was forced to rely on Iraqi exiles living in London and Washington to do so. Some of these had been schooled in the theocratic system of Iran; others were self-interested and out of touch, having left Iraq decades earlier.
Had Iraqis overthrown Saddam during the Arab spring, it might have given them a chance to create grass-roots organisations that better reflected Iraq’s sectarian and tribal diversity. As Saddam’s rule retreated regional powerbases might have emerged that pointed the way to a federal structure that broke the grip of central rule. Of course, the Kurds already have a high degree of autonomy but it was in the Shia south and Sunni west where local movements could have played a large role in managing subsequent tensions. It is striking that one of the few indigenous political parties to succeed in provincial elections, the Fadila party in Basra, called for a federal system of government.
Iraq’s fate is in the hands of the ruling Shia clique who have shown little appetite for dismantling the state’s centralised control. After so much wasted effort by the US, it may be tempted to wash its hands of Iraq. But that must not happen. It should engage the country with the imagination so lacking before the invasion, working closely with tribal and civil society groups. Iraq universities are still woefully cut off from international academia, and foreign investment, other than in the oil industry, has been minimal.
Iraq has turned out better than expected in the years following the invasion. But while the military effort is over, the campaign to transform the nature of the state is still just beginning.
The writer is author of ‘A War of Choice: The British in Iraq 2003-9’