The precarious future of Iraq’s women and the environment 20 years after the invasion

In February 2003, portions of my PhD thesis on Saddam Hussein’s security apparatus were plagiarized in the infamous “intelligence dossier” that justified the 2003 Iraq War. Exactly twenty years later, within the span of a week, a prominent environmental activist was kidnapped and a Youtuber was murdered in an honor killing in Iraq, part of the quotidian violence over the last two decades.

The British government plagiarized my research on the network of secret police, spy agencies, and military units that maintained Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq, referred to as the “republic of fear”. After the invasion and collapse of the state, Iraq became a “republic of anarchy”. Decades later it still is, evident by the recent kidnapping and honor killing.

Iraq’s security sector, as I documented in my work, was brutal under Saddam Hussein, but violence was primarily inflicted by the state. After 2003, Iraqis endured violence from a myriad of sources, not only from the foreign occupying forces, but Iraqi criminal gangs, militias, tribes, and family members, in addition to the new security organs of the state.

The two recent events in Iraq are emblematic of how the post-2003 state fails to provide environmental or human security. As a result, women will be disproportionately affected and bear the brunt of climate change in Iraq opposed to men.

Iraq’s Gendered and Environmental Insecurity since 2003

In early February a 22-year-old Iraqi YouTube star, Tiba Al-Ali was strangled by her father in an “honor killing”. The murder part of the rise of gender-based violence, due to a revival of tribal culture that Saddam encouraged after the 1991 Gulf War to maintain order, which only increased as the security sector collapsed after the 2003 invasion.  

The failure to prevent “honor killings” is an example of patriarchy at the state level. The US touted post-Saddam Iraq as a model state that that would inspire a wave of democratization in the region. Yet Articles 41 and 409 of the Iraqi Penal Code, to this day, permits males to “punish” female members of a household.

Furthermore, state patriarchy is evident by the security sector failing to address this issue, as  the police allegedly knew beforehand that her life was at risk and failed to take action.

Societal patriarchy appears to equally pernicious in Iraq. One twitter user, Ali Bey, wrote that women should “behave or face the same fate as Tiba Al-Ali,” along with a series of other voices in the Iraqi cybersphere condoning, if not celebrating the murder.

On the same day of the news of al-Ali’s death, Iraqi environmentalist Jassim Al-Asadi was kidnapped near Baghdad. Al-Asadi’s brother, with him during the kidnapping, was assured that “Iraq’s security and intelligence services” are investigating his whereabouts, yet US technical aid, these agencies are driven by bureaucratic inertia and infighting, and as a result are rather ineffective.  

Al-Asadi heads the NGO “Nature Iraq,” which seeks to protect the vulnerable southern marshes, a UNESCO world heritage site. Saddam Hussein had drained of the marshes, the site of an antigovernment uprising since 1991, by constructing canals to divert the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, an act of punitive political ecology, leading to the disappearance of several freshwater lakes and increases in soil salinity.

Even with attempts to restore the marshes after 2003, Saddam’s actions left basins of dried-up bodies of water that provide the fodder for dust storms, which were so intense last year that they persisted over months, shutting down air traffic and leading to hospitalizations.

Second, Saddam’s legacy made it easier for saltwater intrusion from the Gulf to Basra, as sea-levels rise. The resulting saltwater intrusion in Basra’s canals and streams continues 300 kilometers upward through Shatt al-Arab waterway, killing crops, livestock, and fish in the marshes.

A shepherd watches his buffalo herd cool off in the receding waters of the Diyala River, which has turned into pools of sewage water due to desertification and pollution, east of Baghdad, Iraq, 11 October 2022. Around 1,200 families have been displaced from marshlands and agricultural areas in southern Iraq over last six months due to drought conditions, according to a local official in the Dhi Qar governorate. Low rainfall and upstream damming in neighboring Iran and Turkey have led to drops in the Tigris and Euphrates water levels. Photo credits: EPA/AHMED JALIL

This is why Al-Asadi’s work was so important, along with other NGOs that constitute Iraq’s environmental civil society. While the pre-2003 state punished the environment, releasing oil in the Gulf in 1991 and draining the marshes, the post-2003 state is merely dysfunctional, failing to implement sustainable environmental policies.

The government has mismanaged water resources, failing to curb inappropriate farming practices, rapidly depleting groundwater resources, which dries up the land contributing to sandstorms. Coupled with corruption, Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources has suffered budget cuts, failing to improve irrigation practices and overall water management.

The drying up of the marshes has a security dimension as well. While the influx of men to join Iraq’s Shi’a militias in 2014 to combat Islamic State (IS) was attributed to a fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, environmental degradation also contributed to this trend.

Gendering the Anthropocene

Fishermen, farmers, and cattle herders became unemployed due to the deteriorating conditions in the marshes. As of 2014 the militias offered salaries, demonstrating the links between environmental disaster and the militarization of society.

IS and Al-Qaida assassinated and executed male head of households, as were a good number killed fighting these terrorist groups.

As a result, women in the marshes are left to deal with the ensuing desertification and salinization, and the death of fish stores or cattle.

An Iraqi Shiite shepherd watches his buffalos at Euphrates river in Abu Sakhair village near Najaf city, southern Iraq, 05 January 2019. Hundreds of Iraqi nomads live in temporary houses near cities beside rivers and swamps in southern Iraq, and their major source of income is earned by selling buffalo milk. EPA/MURTAJA LATEEF

In others areas, such as the Diyala province, a region that has suffered due to IS’s presence, women were engaged in beekeeping, but because of the shortage of water, farms and orchids are dying out.

Otherwise, families of internally displaced persons, escaping conflict or climate change due to lack of water and drought, are usually headed by women.

As Iraq endures the Anthropocene, women will continue to suffer.

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq has called for greater protection for women in light of Al-Ali’s death. The United Nations Environment Programme condemned Al-Asadi’s abduction. That UN body tries to provide technical solutions for Iraq crises as well as strengthening its NGOs. Unlike Tiba Al-Ali, fortunately, Al-Asadi was eventually released. Both UN agencies will need to see how both issues are linked. Iraq’s problems twenty years after the invasion can be linked the unilateral actions of a single nation, the United States. Multilateral institutions, in tandem with Iraqi civil society, are the nation’s greatest hope for the next 20 years.