"The American Legacy in Iraq"
- The Nation
April 8, 2013
The American Legacy in Iraq
By Patrick Cockburn
Ten years ago, Iraqis, even if they had originally opposed them, hoped
that the US invasion and occupation would at least bring an end to the
suffering they had endured under UN sanctions and other disasters
stemming from defeat in the first Gulf War in 1991. Today, people in
Baghdad complain that they still live in a permanent state of crisis
because of sectarian and criminal violence, pervasive corruption, a
broken infrastructure and a dysfunctional government. Many Iraqis say
that what they want in 2013 is the same as what they wanted in 2003,
which is a visa enabling them to move to another country, where they can
get a job.
knows, but Marc Lynch’s The Arab Uprising is a useful guide.
Baghdad was once a city where Sunni, Shiite and Christian lived side by
side, conscious that they belonged to different sects but not frightened
of one another. This all changed during the 2006–08 civil war, during
which, at its peak, more than 3,700 Iraqis died in a single month, the
great majority of them in Baghdad. “There are not many mixed areas
left today,” says a Shiite woman who lives with her mother in a
Sunni-majority district and tries to hide her sectarian identity from
her Sunni neighbors. At the moment, she is worried that she may be asked
to give evidence against one of these neighbors, who is in prison
charged with murdering a Shiite man five years ago. She suspects he also
left a round of ammunition in front of her house as a threat. She does
not want to give evidence against him, as it would become obvious she is
a Shiite, leaving her open to retaliation.
The sectarian civil war was at its most intense in Baghdad and the
central provinces of Iraq, where a third of the country’s 33 million
people live. It ended with a decisive defeat for the Sunnis, who were
driven out of most of east Baghdad, and in west Baghdad were compressed
into several large enclaves surrounded by Shiite neighborhoods. Iraqi
friends say blithely that “everything is safe now,” but they don’t
act as if they really believe it. They become nervous when they enter
hard-core areas controlled by another community or, if living in a mixed
district, they panic if there is the slightest threat, such as a hostile
slogan on a wall or an anonymous leaflet. After what happened before,
nobody is going to take a chance. Even today, there is a constant
drumbeat of bombings and assassinations; 220 Iraqis were killed and 571
injured in February alone.
Ali Abdul-Karim, a successful real estate broker, told me he thought
people were too quick to flee on hearing a rumor. But he went on to
speak about the problems besetting a property sale he is trying to
arrange that underline the dangerous complexities of living in Baghdad.
He said his client in this case is a former intelligence captain under
Saddam Hussein. He owns a bee farm in a notoriously violent Sunni area
on the southern fringes of Baghdad called Arab Jabour. The captain moved
out of the area because he was threatened by Al Qaeda for refusing to
cooperate with them, but his 80-year-old father refuses to leave the
farm. In the meantime, the captain has been imprisoned by the government
because of his former membership in Saddam’s secret police.
A problem in understanding present-day Iraq is that US military
successes after 2007 were exaggerated to make the final military
withdrawal at the end of 2011 look less like a confession of failure.
The surge--the offensive by 30,000 US reinforcements in 2007--was lauded
by the Western media at the time for stopping a civil war and defeating
the Sunni insurgents, though in reality it was a good deal less than
that. In practice, the establishing of US outposts and the building of
dozens of kilometers of concrete-slab walls during the surge simply
froze in place the new sectarian map of Baghdad, leaving the Shiites
dominant. Their territory is easily identifiable because of Shiite
religious banners flying from the tops of buildings and posters showing
Shiite leaders and martyrs, such as Muqtada al-Sadr and his father or
Imam Ali and Imam Hussein, pasted to every wall.
The banners and posters are not just attached to civilian houses, but to
military and police checkpoints, security headquarters, even prisons.
They leave no doubt about which sect runs the government. This is
important, not least because the government payroll totals 3 million
people. Paying these employees absorbs a large part of the
government’s $100 billion a year in oil revenues. Access to political
influence is critical for getting a job--though a bribe is usually
necessary as well--in a country where at least a third of the working
population is unemployed. The system works like a gigantic Tammany Hall
machine, in which jobs are distributed according to party allegiance
regardless of merit. Every ministry is the fiefdom of one party or
another that rigorously excludes other parties or members of other
communities. Overall, the Shiites are included and the Sunnis excluded.
One Sunni friend has a job in a ministry where bribe-taking in return
for official permits is the norm. He swears he does not take bribes, but
says that because other workers in his administrative section are
Shiite, “I am the one who is likely to be charged with corruption.”
He plans to switch jobs as quickly as he can.
There is a grandeur in the blatancy and pervasiveness of corruption at
every level in Iraq. People in prison found innocent at their trial must
still pay to get released. Officers who want promotion in the army or
police must pay. A civilian friend worked out that he could join the
army and rise to the rank of colonel within months, but he would have to
bribe eleven people to do so. One former minister describes the system
as “institutionalized kleptocracy.” The government of Nouri
al-Maliki, prime minister since 2006, allocates contracts to supporters
and to political factions he wants to cultivate. Money is paid for
contracts regardless of whether they are performed or not. The effects
can be seen all over Baghdad, where there are almost no new buildings. I
was there recently during a couple of days of heavy rain. Since 2003, $7
billion has been spent on a new sewage system, which should have taken
care of the rainwater. But it turns out that either there are no new
sewers or they don’t work, because within hours, the streets of
Baghdad turned into murky gray pools of water and sewage. Electricity is
often two hours on, two hours off, and there is a shortage of clean
Indeed, there is little to show for the more than $60 billion the United
States has spent on reconstruction projects. To be sure, many of those
projects were wasteful or fraudulent [for more, see Peter Van Buren,
“Why the Invasion of Iraq Was the Single Worst Foreign Policy Decision
in American History,” at TheNation.com]. But it goes deeper than that.
Iraq’s corruption is so destructive to development because it is more
than just a system of payoffs. Maliki uses the threat of selective
anti-corruption measures to intimidate his enemies and keep his allies
in line. An American businessman told me that in one ministry he was
dealing with, he thought that 90 percent of the officials did not take
bribes, possibly because they were not offered them. But these people
were just as vulnerable to corruption charges as the 10 percent who do.
The safest course for those not taking bribes is to draw their salaries,
do nothing, sign no documents and agree to no new projects. The result
is paralysis of the administrative system. (The Maliki government has a
powerful army, police and intelligence service, and control of millions
of jobs and the state budget. But at the same time, it has no authority
in Kurdish-controlled areas and limited authority in provinces where
there is a Sunni Arab majority.)
The rise of a state so parasitic on its people has much to do with the
actions of the United States before rather than after the 2003 invasion.
The destruction of the Iraqi economy and society had begun thirteen
years earlier, in 1990, when UN sanctions were imposed, at US urging,
after Saddam invaded Kuwait. They amounted to a merciless, thirteen-year
economic siege that did not lead to the overthrow of Saddam but did
reduce millions of Iraqis to poverty. The health and education services
collapsed and crime became rife. The Oil for Food program during that
period supposedly permitted essential supplies to reach Iraq, but they
were never enough. In 1996, I visited a village called Penjwin in Iraqi
Kurdistan, beyond Saddam’s control, where people had been reduced to
trying to survive by defusing and extracting the explosive from a highly
dangerous jumping mine called the Valmara. They would sell the
explosive, and the aluminum foil it was wrapped in, for a few dollars.
Many villagers were missing hands or feet.
Because of sanctions, Iraqi society was already in a state of
dissolution when the United States invaded in 2003. Its collapse was
kept in check only by the brutal discipline of Saddam’s rule. When
that was removed, there was a social revolutionary ferocity in the
looting of Baghdad. A former senior official there said that “Iraq has
ended up living under a system that combines some of the worst elements
of rule by Saddam Hussein and the US occupation.” It will take a long
time to recover.
Patrick Cockburn, a foreign correspondent for *The Independent* of
London, first visited Iraq in 1977 and has written three books on the
country and its leaders. He recently completed a tour of all parts of