Iraq Descends Once More into Turmoil: is There Any Hope Ahead?

The 2003 American invasion of Iraq was always surrounded by dubious justifications. Notwithstanding the obvious lies then President George W. Bush told the American people about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, paving the way for the invasion by US and coalition forces. Life under Saddam Hussein had been belligerent, oppressive, and stagnant. Iraq then was politically stable by brute force only, which was no stability at all.

Playing on the obvious downsides of the Hussein regime, the Bush Administration seized an opportunity to expand US oil and military interests by convincing ordinary Americans that Saddam Hussein was complicit in 9/11. Failing to prove this, Iraq was alleged to possess “weapons of mass destruction,” something Bush knowingly used to sanction a war, in spite of clear shortfalls in intelligence reports at the time that were at best manipulated, or at worst falsified.

Ba’athism And Coups: Iraq’s Troubled History

The greater backdrop to the invasion, however, was a country ill at ease with itself, its neighbors, and its role on the world stage. After Hussein seized the reins from former Ba’ath Party leader Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, a series of badly miscalculated wars with neighbors⁠ – started by Hussein⁠ – as well as failed internal policies, created hardship and discontent for the Iraqi people.

Although the Ba’ath Party had been in power since 1963, the leader Hassan al-Bakr staged a coup upon being ousted, retaking the reins of power. A 1968 bloodless coup saw al-Bakr take complete control of the country, ousting Colonel Abdel Salam Aref whom he had previously helped to install. Over the next decade, Hussein rose from being chief of intelligence services in al-Bakr’s regime, to succeeding his former leader in 1979.

Life was initially good for common Iraqis under al-Bakr, notwithstanding his chosen route to ascension, and Iraq’s image in the Arab world was shifting to one of enhanced standing. Internal tensions within the country’s majority Shia community were persistent, however, and in fact Hussein rose to the presidency on the back of his oppression of a bout of anti-government social unrest, something he crushed in a power grab marked by the brutal oppression of protesters as well as a purging of the Ba’ath Party.

Dreams of Syrian Union Dashed by Hussein

At the time of Hussein taking power, President Al-Bakr had been close to concluding negotiations with Syria to merge the two countries. Such a development would have seen Hussein politically sidelined. Then Syrian president Hafez al-Assad would have become deputy leader of the union under al-Bakr. Instead, under threat of force, the ailing al-Bakr ceded the presidency to Hussein, whereupon Hussein staged a purge, executing opposing voices in his own party in short order. Citizens’ protests were violently suppressed, and all dissenting voices within the party were silenced.

Although Hussein’s Ba’ath regime was officially secular, Iraq’s Sunni Muslim community felt entitled under the new dispensation, Hussein himself being a Sunni Muslim. While actually more nuanced, political upheaval became delineated along that fault line, and Hussein’s belligerence towards largely Shia Muslim Iran also eventually led to the devastating Iraq⁠—Iran war starting in 1980. Iran had experienced a revolution in 1979, at the same time as Hussein was still crushing street protests and executing rivals, and this led to the belief that Iran would be a weak target.

Trading on this assumption, and with the ancient Shia-Sunni factionalism having now become the broad backdrop to conflict in the region, the war between the neighboring states was anything but swift, persisting for eight brutal years.

Iran-Iraq War Ceasefire

A ceasefire was reached in 1988, and a stalemate became the final outcome of hostilities between the two countries. Hussein had failed to demonstrate Iraq’s ability to quash its far larger eastern neighbor, while at the same time he entrenched a pattern of brutal suppression of dissent on the home front. Iraq’s prosperity had evaporated, to be replaced by politics of fear and simmering tension. Hussein’s mismanagement of the economy and regional belligerence had taken its toll.

When the US and coalition forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, they found a weakened and divided nation. In a war now considered one of the larger deceits of the American public (no “weapons of mass destruction” were ever found⁠—the premise upon which Bush had insisted on the immediate need to topple Hussein), Iraq fell within a month. Since then, life in Iraq has been a constant, violent political conflict with diverse armed combatants sporadically detonating bombs that have claimed thousands of lives. Iraq has become a truly fragmented nation and another ugly quagmire for the US, much like Afghanistan.

Iraq Remains a Fractured Nation

Although a government of “national unity” has been in place since the US toppled the Ba’ath regime upon invasion, national unity is an elusive animal in Iraq. Over a dozen armed factions are currently vying for various kinds of control, from territorial to national, while loyalties and allegiances often chop and change too, making attempted solutions and likely outcomes unpredictable. A clear line towards national unity, and political and economic stability remains elusive.

Iraq’s current turmoil is but another moment of social upheaval in a broken country, one bedeviled by foreign interests and acts of aggression, as well as internal fractures that involve religious, cultural, geographic and historical grievances. The latest unrest has an elevated pitch, however, as common Muslims rarely defy clerical dictates on behavior. The last few weeks in Iraq have seen anti-government protesters defy a Shiite cleric and take to the streets, something indicative of the level of discontent common Iraqis are feeling.

Iraq is a country of many armed and adamant factions. Quite apart from opportunistic aggression by smaller groups or coalitions seeking local dominance or other benefits from their belligerence, the current Iraqi army was assembled and trained under American and other foreign oversight. It lacks legitimacy for many, as well as its own genuine sense of identity and purpose at times. Sunni militias allied to Ba’athist loyalists habitually attack the Iraqi Army, and there is also a history of aggression between Islamic State (IS) and the army that reaches back decades. IS is now a major force in the region, still holding onto the desire to establish a caliphate, and populated by many of Hussein’s former military commanders.

Former Hussein strongmen make IS a formidable and persistent force, although the movement itself gives rise to internal tensions of varying degrees, while also prompting citizens’ flight from IS territory towards less politicised regions – something extremely hard to come by in Iraq. Also, up to 35 million Kurds occupy the rugged mountainous region that straddles several borders – Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Armenia and Syria. Kurdish people are in fact the Middle East’s fourth-largest ethnic group, and local and national loyalties play out within the region against the difficulties for Kurds of marrying both their cultural and national identities.

While both the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces had collaborated to combat IS, fighting started between the army and Kurdish fighters in 2017, further fracturing tenuous alliances. Previous conflicts between Turkmen and Kurdish fighters that have been manifest since 2015 add to the fragmentation, as varying objectives coexist within Turkmen politics, some aligned to national (Iraqi) unity, while others seek greater autonomy. The coalition forces on the ground in Iraq are supporting both the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces to repel IS, but are walking a minefield through the two groups’ conflict with each another. Calls for a peaceful resolution between the two warring parties seldom gain traction.

Adding to Iraq’s state of constant conflict are neighboring countries like Turkey, which previously supported Kurdish fighters against IS until around 2017, where after Turkey began systematically attacking Kurdish forces, supporting Iraq’s army in their fight against the Kurds. Ceasefires and truces are as often employed as smokescreens for various and expediently varying political aims. Iraq, weakened by years of oppressive belligerence under Hussein and blasted by the US invasion, has never been able to recover a sense of genteel politics to resolve its innumerable armed conflicts.

Hopes for Future Stability in Iraq

The current unrest in the streets of Baghdad stems from accumulated dissatisfaction with government inability and corruption, economic intransigence, and the seemingly constant stress levels the average Iraqi lives under. The economic immobility, particularly, weighs heavily upon the populace. In an unnatural situation, where a country is so bitterly fragmented and warring because of it, meaningful change is hard to effect. Glimpses of political corruption, and glimpses of the future unchanged all severely tax the collective psyche of a people who have had no rest for decades.

That recent protests occurred in spite of a prominent cleric’s admonishments gives everyone outside a glimpse of just how desperately dissatisfied many Iraqis are.

International pledges towards reconstruction of various cities and other infrastructure have been stymied⁠—it’s difficult to effect meaningful public works in such a fractured and hostile environment. There are more than 2 million internally displaced people in Iraq, floating in a homeostasis many find no longer tenable. With both the central and Kurdish governments also lamentably erratic in paying salaries, the knock-on effect in the country is huge. Economic resurgence in Iraq clearly needs stable government employees, instead that workforce is contributing to the national dissatisfaction, and points to a weak, frail state.

Could Protests Improve Conditions in Iraq?

As unpleasant, dangerous and seemingly unfortunate as protest actions might appear, perhaps they will ultimately form the basis of a long-awaited change in Iraq’s demeanor and policies. It seems that Iraq has much goodwill out in the world, with many international parties pledged to assist in rebuilding the country. Perhaps all that is needed is for common people, as they recently have, to protest loudly, until a new ethos is forced upon the current regime, all warring parties, and insidious outside interests. Iraqis have had enough of war.

The Iraqi parliament voted in January 2020 to evict all remaining US troops still in the country. In response, US President Donald Trump has threatened to slash military and other aid to Iraq that Congress has already approved. It seems the honeymoon that never was is over. Iraq always had to get to the point where it threw off the status of US colony and regained its autonomy.

Having had a glimpse of stability and even a taste of the good life over the years, the Iraqi populace’s anger is now more targeted and more urgent. Outside interests have seldom aided common Iraqis in any real sense. The coalition government is struggling for efficacy and control on many fronts. Perhaps it will indeed be common Iraqi citizens that continue to protest for a return to normality who will prove to be the many straws that break the camel’s back. Iraq desperately needs peace, to enable its citizens to regain their economic optimism and vigor.