How should one characterize the U.S. war of 2003? Was it a “liberation” of millions of people from tyranny, or a much hated “occupation”? This essay reflects on how the Interim Governing Council (IGC)—formed following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein—conflated “democracy” with “representation” based on muhassasa (the practice of filling key government posts by “consensus” of the major-party bosses, using sectarian or ethnic criteria). This arrangement of the IGC proved ripe for corruption. Post-2003, identity politics continued to shape the outlook of Iraq’s political elite, but today a new generation has begun making itself heard. This generation believes in Iraq as a nation and understands democracy as more than a source of spoils to be divided among groups.
In February 2003, I was one of about sixty Iraqis who met in Salahuddin, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, to discuss the shape of a transitional Iraqi government to be established immediately after the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. We knew the regime was about to be toppled because three other Iraqis and myself had been invited to the White House and told so in no uncertain terms by President George W. Bush himself in the last days of January 2003. This meeting at the White House brought the first semi-public word that the United States was in fact going to militarily remove Saddam this second time around, after having chosen to leave him in power following his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.
We four were “independents”: None of us belonged to any party or movement in the collection of organizations that then formed the Iraqi opposition to Saddam’s Baath Party regime. Moreover, all of us had been among the roughly two-thousand people who had attended the December 2002 meeting of the Iraqi opposition in London. That conference had chosen the sixty who were meeting at Salahuddin in February.
On the agenda was an address by Zalmay Khalilzad, the White House special envoy on Iraq. His speech was to be the crowning event of our deliberations. But he did not show. We dragged out our meetings for days, waiting for him. Perhaps it was the weather, people said.
Khalilzad never came to Salahuddin. Instead, four leading opposition figures were summoned to the U.S. base at İncirlik, Turkey, to see him there. He had chosen not to travel the extra distance to northern Iraq because, I suspect, the nature of his message had changed.
The four were Masoud Barzani, Ahmad Chalabi, Ayad Allawi, and Jalal Talabani. At İncirlik, they were peremptorily informed there was not going to be a transitional Iraqi government. Instead, there would be a U.S. occupation government. The Iraqi opposition, including the armed Kurdish Peshmerga—a not insignificant force at the time—was to stand down, carrying out no military operations inside Iraq. This flew in the face of everything that had gone on between the Iraqi opposition and the U.S. government in the twelve years that had passed since the first Gulf War. Moreover, it set the stage for the very rocky and unfriendly future relations that the 25 future members of the Interim Governing Council (IGC), most of whom were at that Salahuddin meeting, were going to have with Ambassador L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) starting in mid-2003.
While still in Salahuddin, I penned an article against the idea of an “interruption in Iraqi sovereignty,” arguing that it would be a mistake of historic proportions. In a mid-February newspaper column, I recommended an Iraqi transitional government that would set a firm date for elections.1 But it was too late. Sometime between the London meeting and the Salahuddin conference, the decision for a U.S. occupation of Iraq had been taken.
After Salahuddin, there remained a technicality that had to be dealt with: We needed a public statement to sum up the proceedings. These types of statements are boring and hackneyed sets of words that have to be written but which usually no one reads. The drafting committee comprised me, Adel Abdul Mahdi (a future prime minister), and three of his fellow Islamists who were willing to let the two of us take the lead. We worked into the small hours of the morning of the day we had to make the arduous journey back to Istanbul and home. As our session neared its close, we were still haggling over one sentence in the short document.
At issue was a formula about minority rights that I had inserted. I held these rights to be foundational to a “democracy,” whatever else that word was taken to mean. We all supposedly wanted democracy in Iraq. I could not sign onto a document that only emphasized majority rule, in effect Arab Shia rule, because it would be antidemocratic in the absence of minority rights.
Being myself a minority of one, I asked for a formal vote to settle the matter as we were all exhausted and needed to get a few hours of sleep before the return journey. But Abdul Mahdi, a representative of the of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), objected to the idea of a vote; there had to be ijma’ (consensus).
“Why not a vote?” I asked. “I am in the minority and will lose the vote, and am perfectly happy with that. But I cannot put my name to a formulation of democracy that I do not agree with.”
His reply was that I represented no one but myself (true), while he and the others represented “forces” made up of “masses” of people. Therefore, our votes were not equal, and to vote made no sense at all. This way of thinking was the very reason why I was trying to get the sentence included in the document in the first place—a sentence that had incidentally made it into the platform voted upon in December 2002 at the London meeting. Abdul Mahdi’s idea of “representation,” a type of what we would call today “identity politics,” lives on to this day in Iraqi politics. At bottom it is a way of thinking about Iraq not as a single political whole but as a zero-sum game played by a collection of mutually exclusive “groups,” defined ethnically or by religion and sect, that see themselves as being in competition with one another (usually over who has suffered the most in the past). Ijma’ essentially compelled the weakest among them to submit to the will of the strongest, and “democracy” lay in the fact of their acquiescence.
I bring this up because Abdul Mahdi (b. 1942) would turn out to be a major player in post-2003 Iraq. He was a CPA favorite, an eloquent, multilingual economist who seemed to represent a moderate strain of political Islam. Equally important, he was acceptable to Iran as well as the CPA. On the IGC, which the CPA named in July 2003, Abdul Mahdi was technically only an alternate, but along with Ahmad Chalabi he was the most persuasive member and served as SCIRI’s brains during deliberations. In many ways, Abdul Mahdi’s embrace by the CPA, his politics, and his career—including stints as finance minister (2004–2005), vice-president (2005–11), oil minister (2014–16), and prime minister (2018–19)—exemplify the best of the new post-2003 political class whose foundations were laid when the CPA established the IGC.
Politics as Apportionment of Spoils
The “consensus” that was sought in February 2003 built upon 1990s-era practices of the Iraqi opposition—practices that would metamorphose in strange ways amid the political turmoil of Iraq after 2003. Most important, ijma’ has the useful appearance of corresponding to Muslim tradition and underlies muhassasa (apportionment), which is the practice of filling key government posts by “consensus” of the major-party bosses, using sectarian or ethnic criteria. In their own minds, everyone was being democratic and Islamic, while in practice powerful factions were simply agreeing on how to divide the spoils.
Back in the days of the Iraqi opposition, muhassasa made a modicum of sense (though I argued in the early 1990s that there were better alternatives), since the organized opposition was an ad hoc collection of self-appointed groups who, the Kurds excepted, had no other societal basis for making decisions. Twenty years on, the system has become the vehicle for forming and re-forming the groups sharing the spoils, which now of course come not from other countries or the activities of party militias, but from the Iraqi state.
All the “original” opposition groups (the two Kurdish parties, SCIRI, and the rest) had either been born in exile or had known nothing aside from it for decades. As I explained in 1989, by the late 1970s the Baath Party had eliminated all forms of organized opposition within Iraq.2 After Saddam’s bloody 1979 purge, there was not even any politics inside the ruling party itself, much less society at large. Politics resumed following the 1991 Gulf War, but only in exile or in the Kurdish north, shielded by the UN-backed no-fly zone.
The irony is that when the United States, driven by distrust of the Iraqi opposition, decided to establish the CPA, that authority itself ended up falling back on the opposition’s practices from the 1990s. The best illustration of this was the CPA’s establishment of the IGC.3
In choosing its members, Bremer focused on “representation” above all else. The point was not capable leadership at this critical juncture in the country’s history, but to paint a pretty picture for a skeptical outside world mostly hostile to the U.S. decision to overthrow Saddam. There had to be just the right numbers of Kurds (five) and Arabs (eighteen), while thirteen of the 25 seats had to go to Shias, with Sunni Arabs limited to five. Sprinkled into the mix were three women, a Turkoman, and an Assyrian Christian. It was a distribution brimming with good intentions, in large part because it gave Iraq’s Shia a political edge over their Sunni brethren for the first time in their millennium-old history.
There had not been a proper Iraqi census for a very long time, but on television the IGC members made an impressive picture. It had nothing to do with governing, but it did suggest to the outside world U.S. intentions to establish a “democratic” Iraq. Certainly, no other Arab state looked as representative.
The conflation of “democracy” with “representation” based on a muhassasa division of spoils among groups—a representation that was arbitrary by definition—was consistent with the idea of ijma’. Nothing offends muhassasa, “representation,” identity politics, or consensus more than the old-fashioned liberal idea of “one person, one vote.”
To be fair, once Washington had decided on an occupation government, there were not many good options for how to proceed. After all, how do you go about choosing people from inside a country whose population has long been deprived of any experience with politics, much less elections? In retrospect, I must admit that U.S. suspicion of the Iraqi opposition was partly justified. The 2002 London meeting had revealed the depth and extent of Iranian influence; looking back, I fear that I may have overestimated the abilities and good intentions of those delegates, and underestimated their ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Nonetheless, the decisionmakers in Washington did not realize how completely they had missed out on something much more important than the impression of “representativeness” the Governing Council gave to the outside world. With a handful of exceptions, neither in the pre-2003 opposition nor on the IGC did any in the political class choose to identify in the first place as “Iraqis.” Aside from Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, no group or party even had “Iraq” in its name. They were in their own eyes, and in the first place, Kurds or Arabs or Shias or Sunnis or Turkomans or Christians or Islamists of one obscure faction or another; the one thing most of them were not, politically speaking, was Iraqi. It remains totally baffling to me that no one in the CPA in 2003 seems to have been aware of this.
To assert one’s “Iraqiness” means that the “higher” values one stands for in politics, the values that cut across divides of religion and ethnicity, are addressed in principle to all Iraqis rather than just to members of one’s own primordial community. These values would of course undermine muhassasa, which is based on ethnosectarian criteria rooted in identity-bound grievances, real or imagined, creating what in my 2022 book Fi Al-Qaswa (On Cruelty) I called a “politics of victimhood.”
Between Allawi’s premiership starting in 2004 and Abdul Mahdi’s starting in 2018, and all through the 2013–17 war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), politics was a spectacle of identity groups (and their corresponding parliamentary blocs) competing with one another over who had suffered the most under Saddam. His regime, insisted Kurds and Shias alike, had been not just a dictatorship but a Sunni dictatorship. This was a false reading of the character of the Baathist regime, but it served to justify marginalizing Sunni Arabs, who now had to redress wrongs that supposedly only Kurds and Shias had suffered.
Iraq’s Baath Party was many very terrible things, and it certainly exploited sectarianism (for example while crushing the uprising that followed the 1991 Gulf War), but the Baathist regime was not sectarian in the sense that, say, the government of Lebanon after 1945 had been sectarian. In fact, the Baath regime was worse; it was closer to Stalin’s totalitarianism at the peak of its repressiveness during the 1930s and 1940s.
Sunni Arabs had been rare in pre-2003 opposition ranks; even worse, the ones chosen so carefully by the CPA did not represent Sunni Arabs inside Iraq. From talking with CPA officials and Iraqis at the time, I learned that these Sunnis had largely been chosen ad hoc, and sometimes on the basis of a nostalgic reading of the history of tribes that by 2003 were little more than fictions that Saddam had cobbled together following his 1991 defeat. The Iraqi anthropologist Hosham Dawood had studied this process thoroughly. Had CPA officials bothered to consult him, I wondered, as for the first time in their lives they turned to Iraqi tribal history to help them choose genuinely “representative” leaders for the IGC?
Tailored for Corruption
Two indisputably Iraqi leaders were the tyrant himself Saddam Hussein, who had slipped out of Baghdad on 10 April 2003 and would remain at large until December, and the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the bête noire of the CPA and the IGC until the latter was dissolved in June 2004. Saddam and Muqtada live in the Iraqi political imagination in strangely magical ways. Saddam endures not because of the terror through with which he ruled, but because of the dignified way in which he died during the sectarian lynching that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki orchestrated. Saddam’s hanging took place on 30 December 2006, which for Iraqi Sunnis marked the first day of the four-day Eid al-Adha observance (I have covered the timing at length in my 2016 novel The Rope). As memories of Saddam’s terror receded, some even took to comparing his rule favorably to what was now looking to most Iraqis like a world with no rules.
Unlike Saddam, Muqtada al-Sadr (b. 1974) is very much alive. He had his archrival, the moderate cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei, murdered on the same day Saddam fled Baghdad, and was most recently the surprise winner of the October 2021 elections. When Sadr could not marshal enough support in parliament to change the muhassasa system that bolsters the entrenched but deeply unpopular Shia leaders who are his rivals, he withdrew from the government-forming process, pulled his supporters out of the legislature, and launched an invasion of the parliament building complete with street battles that killed dozens. The irascible and unpredictable Muqtada, a man of multiple identities, still exerts considerable influence in the streets of Baghdad and the cities of southern Iraq. His presence renders the current Iran-backed government of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani (sworn in October 2022) precarious at best.
What brought this chaotic state of affairs about? There had been five incoherent and fractured Iraqi governments, all based on muhassasa, before a new and different type of “caretaker” government emerged in May 2020. By a design implicit in the creation of the IGC, Shia parties and organizations dominated every one of these five governments. Since the Shia-Sunni civil war that raged between 2005 and 2007, and following the defeat of ISIS at the end of 2017, Sunni political power and influence had evaporated. The muhassasa system guaranteed that a Sunni Arab (albeit Shia-approved) would be speaker of parliament, but that was all. The civil war had “cleansed” Sunnis from Baghdad, and the defeat of ISIS at the hands of an international coalition had ended any residual Sunni military power. Shia and Kurdish parties and militias now control the entire political game in Iraq.
Among the post-2003 political elite, the muhassasa system held from 2004 on. The system offered a stable way for senior politicians to waltz in and out of office after elections. Iraqi oil income provided nicely for all of them. The state was reduced to a source of booty to be looted, what the Arabs of the Jahiliyya called ghanima after a successful raid; it was not an ideal to be served, and this bothered no one among the elite. Muqtada excluded, muhassasa’s problem was never among the elite. The system’s troubles instead came from its inability to deliver much-needed goods and services to the people at large.
Muhassasa is a system tailored for widescale corruption; it is designed to funnel state resources into party and militia coffers, not into projects on the ground. Corruption is therefore systemic, not episodic or merely pervasive. Ministers and technocrats are not chosen on merit or experience, and they mainly answer to their party bosses rather than the prime minister. These bosses were often not even in parliament, if they had any official capacity at all. Party and militia chiefs such as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, Masoud Barzani, Nouri al-Maliki, Jalal Talabani, Ahmad Chalabi, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari deemed themselves to be above any but the highest posts. Legislators were to them mere toadies who only took orders.
Twenty years later, one of the Arab world’s richest countries still produces but a fraction of its own electricity. Iraq’s oilfields burn off millions of cubic feet of natural gas per year in flares while the gas needed for electricity generation is bought from Iran. Infrastructure has been neglected for decades while the educational system is in worse shape than it was under Baathist rule, even during the harsh sanctions period of the 1990s. In 2021, the World Bank estimated youth unemployment at almost 36 percent.4 College graduates have been especially hard hit, as they can no longer count on public-sector jobs.
Two key decisions that Abdul Mahdi took after assuming office are key to understanding the extraordinary 2019 uprising that ultimately unseated him and transformed the very nature of Iraqi politics. The first decision was to integrate Shia militias into the national-security apparatus. No Iraqi government had ever done this, and two (Allawi’s and Maliki’s) had fought Sadr’s Mahdi Army with military force. Why did Abdul Mahdi take such a step? His political history may suggest a reason. He started in the 1960s as a member of a Baathist militia, Al-Haras al-Qawmi, before becoming a communist (first a Stalinist, later a Maoist). By the late 1970s, political Islam beckoned to him as it did to many former leftists in the region. A common thread running through all these leanings is the belief—held by Baathists, communists, and Islamists alike—in “forces” made up of “masses” of people that one can claim to “represent,” either by dint of who one is, or ideologically. By the early 1980s, Abdul Mahdi had become a supporter of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, joining SCIRI after its 1982 founding in Tehran.
This way of thinking is not a mindset restricted to individuals here or there. Most of Iraq’s post-2003 political elite comprises men (they are all men) of my generation, who were formed intellectually during the three decades of Baathist rule, and especially in the 1980s, when the Iran-Iraq War was raging. Identity politics is what they all have in common. Not least on this list are Nouri al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr. The latter may be the son of a revered ayatollah and wear a black turban, but the political culture that informs how his mind works is wholly Baathist.
In 2018, I surmise, Abdul Mahdi believed that just as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), born in the bloody throes of the Iran-Iraq War, became a pillar of the Islamic Republic, so too could the Iraqi Shia militias, born in a sectarian war against Sunnis, be institutionalized as the Iraqi equivalent of the IRGC.
I should say a word about Iraqi sectarianism. Some of the different shades of it that have been in play since 2003 are what I would call “ideological” versions. These include the type of sectarianism embraced by originally secular intellectuals such as Ahmad Chalabi (who died in 2015) and Abdul Mahdi. Their sectarianism was born of genuine belief in the principles of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, but what drew them to that revolution was less its Islamic dimension and more its uniquely Shia character. These are not religious men. By the late 1970s, identity politics of the Islamic variety was on the upswing internationally among both Shia (because of the Iranian revolution) and Sunnis (because of the Sunni Jihad in Afghanistan). But it was not only in the Middle East. Identity politics had become the refuge of the New Left following its decline and retreat into Western academia (despite the roots that identity politics has in U.S. white supremacy, as Jill Lepore has persuasively pointed out).5 Unsurprisingly, those trends in Western political culture found a home among members of Iraq’s new political elite.
On another level, identity politics in Iraq resembles the Stalinism of European and Asian communist parties after the Russian Revolution. These “peripheral” parties saw themselves as beholden to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which had after all led a genuine socialist revolution while they had not. Nationalism never having been their strong point, their own countries’ interests easily came in second behind the USSR’s. Many a communist party, especially Iraq’s in the 1970s, paid a terrible price for that delusion. This story has now been repeating itself in the case of the Iraqi Shia elite, which is so subservient to Iran that it is unable to see a conflict between Iran’s interests and Iraq’s.
Alongside ideological sectarianism is another type that is more intimate, visceral, and homegrown—and that can turn against Iran in a heartbeat. It is perhaps best represented by Sadr, whose Mahdi Army was responsible for some of the worst excesses of the 2005–2007 civil war. It is also represented by the politics of the wily Maliki when he was prime minister. It is a mean and vengeful anti-intellectual sentiment that operates irrespective of broader issues of policy. Under Maliki, the Iraqi army was “sectarianized” in this way, losing its most capable U.S.-trained Sunni and Shia officers in favor of Maliki’s friends and relatives. The upshot was Mosul’s catastrophic fall in June 2014, when a few truckloads of ISIS terrorists routed a hundred-thousand Iraqi soldiers.
The second fateful decision that Abdul Mahdi took was his September 2019 dismissal of General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, Iraq’s most effective antiterror soldier, from his post as deputy commander of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (ICTS). Leading the ten-thousand men of the First Special Operations Brigade—the last U.S.-trained antiterror force left intact after Maliki’s purges—General Saadi had directed house-to-house fighting to take Mosul back from ISIS in 2016 and 2017. A career officer and a genuine war hero, he became a household name to the extent that the people of Mosul erected a statue of him at their own expense. With his service to Iraq at the head of the Golden Brigade (as First Special Ops was nicknamed), the Iraqi army began the process of regaining its credibility in the public’s eyes.
Militia leaders beholden to Iran envied and feared the general, however. They included men such as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who would die in the Baghdad Airport U.S. drone strike that killed the IRGC’s General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. After Saadi’s firing, demonstrations broke out in Mosul and his southern home governorate. The government took down his statue in the dead of night. Protesters held up banners reading “Heroes liberate our cities, and cowards rule.” These early rallies are thought by observers to have been the spark that set off the Tishreen Uprising on 1 October 2019. All across southern Iraq, demonstrations and sit-ins spread like wildfire.
“We Want a Country!”
The 2019 protests started peacefully, with demands focusing on joblessness (especially among youth), failing public services, and state corruption. Demonstrators identified the last with the muhassasa system. The early rallies were dominated by young people, children of post-2003 Iraq with no personal memories of Saddam or Baathist rule. If Saddam came up at all, it was in the talk of elders comparing his “order” favorably to the current plight of an Iraqi state that was being picked clean by self-enriching factions.
Iraqis under the age of forty have known the internet and the opening of Iraq to the outside world, the one great benefit that the 2003 war afforded their generation. Unlike the political elite, they do not think like Baathists. Downtown Baghdad’s Tahrir Square soon became protest central, with rallies taking place too in Basra and Najaf as well as smaller cities and towns. Baghdad looked like Cairo and Tunis during the early days of the Arab Spring. As in those 2011 protests, demands in Iraq soon grew to encompass political reforms, with the cry going up for early elections and Abdul Mahdi’s resignation.
The watchword was nureed watan or “we want a country,” with watan used in its geographical sense and entirely without the religious connotations of umma (used by Islamists) or the ethnic overtones of qawm (used by Arab nationalists). As in Cairo during the Arab Spring, the Iraqi protesters acted on their own demand by occupying and managing public spaces, camping in the squares, distributing food, and providing medical services once the violent government crackdown began. Lectures and literary readings flourished while paintings embellished drab urban concrete. Nothing like this had been seen in Iraq for more than half a century.
It is crucial to recall that these were overwhelmingly Shia demonstrations against a Shia-led sectarian political order. The Kurds and Sunnis, for reasons distinct to each community, stayed on the sidelines. The protests were a continuation of earlier and more local (mostly southern) antigovernment protests that dated back to 2011. Sunni provinces starved of public services had protested following the Arab Spring, but Maliki had crushed those demonstrations with signal brutality. The October 2019 events were unprecedented in scale, as one southern city after another rose up. Like Maliki before him, Abdul Mahdi tried blaming Baathists or outside agitators. Few believed him.
Leaving aside the 1991 post–Gulf War uprising, which had from the outset and by necessity been violent, peaceful mass demonstrations of such scope, size, or duration had not happened before. The government, caught off guard, learned that it could not rely on its own police, who sometimes sided with the demonstrators. Iraq’s most widely respected cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, at first called for calm, but then on October 25 rejected the government’s attempt to whitewash its use of escalating violence against demonstrators.
The divisions within the government were exemplified by the reaction of Directorate of Intelligence head Mustafa al-Kadhimi, an appointee of Abdul Mahdi’s predecessor. (Full disclosure: Between 2003 and 2012, Kadhimi ran the Iraq Memory Foundation, which I founded in Baghdad in 2003.) Discreetly, Kadhimi used his agency to aid the protesters, for instance by providing safe houses for activists and journalists targeted by paramilitaries. In one case that I investigated personally, masked gunmen picked up an activist in her twenties while she was walking home from Tahrir Square. They interrogated her for nine days, using images from cameras in the square and her social-media posts. The thugs, who were not part of the official security services, had access to her bank accounts and travel itinerary during recent years, evidence of the close coordination between the Interior Ministry and the Iran-backed militias whose integration into the state Abdul Mahdi had authorized in 2018. Fortunately, she was able to keep the GPS on her phone active; agents of Kadhimi’s Directorate of Intelligence located her, surrounded the house where she was being held, and forced the militiamen to release her. She was then spirited out of Iraq to the United Arab Emirates, where I interviewed her in February 2020.
Her story underlines the point that the violence that counted in 2019 and that forced a change in the protesters’ tactics came mostly from the newly empowered militias. They placed snipers on rooftops to target “ringleaders” singled out using camera footage supplied by the Iraqi security services. Over four months, the use of live ammunition caused between six-hundred and a thousand deaths despite widespread condemnation both within and outside the government. The protesters met force with force, setting fire to the Baghdad parent offices of various militias, including those belonging to the League of the Righteous, the Party of Virtue, Maliki’s Da’awa party, and SCIRI’s Badr Organization. In Karbala, the Iranian consulate burned.
Former premier Haider al-Abadi threatened to pull his people from parliament as a show of solidarity with the demonstrators. Sadr, playing both sides, introduced “Peace Brigades” to “protect” the protesters. Pressure mounted on Abdul Mahdi to resign. His “investigations” of militia violence were taken seriously by no one, not even Sistani’s office. Too many young Shias had been killed on Abdul Mahdi’s watch, and by November he had to go. But what would come next? To answer that question, the bosses of the seven largest Shia parties conferred with Abdul Mahdi in secret, wanting him to resign formally while continuing as caretaker premier. Meanwhile, successive candidates for the post who were ostensibly acceptable to the demonstrators submitted cabinet lists, but none could make it past the cabal’s unanimity rule. The idea was to leave Abdul Mahdi as the “last man standing” and return him to office by default.
Two candidates failed as planned, but the scheme broke down with the third choice, the only one acceptable to the demonstrators, Mustafa al-Kadhimi. After six months without a government, Iraq saw this former journalist, human-rights activist, and intelligence chief become its new premier in May 2020. One of his first acts was to reinstate General Saadi to the ICTS, this time not as its deputy chief but as its commander.
Kadhimi had become premier with the quiet backing of Sistani, whose displeasure with the corruption and dysfunction in Baghdad had long been made clear. Iran, its Iraq presence in disarray following Soleimani’s death and thinking that perhaps Kadhimi would not be the threat that Tehran had feared he would be, acquiesced in his elevation. To break the stranglehold of international sanctions, Iran needs Iraq. The Iraqi market and Iraqi banks set up by militia leaders serve as money-laundering and foreign-currency channels for the Iranian regime. Tehran may have calculated that a pro-Western premier in Baghdad would be a better cover for sanctions-busting operations than would a pro-Iranian head of government. A third source of support for Kadhimi was Sadr’s parliamentary group, which weighed in on behalf of Kadhimi in part owing to his good relations with the demonstrators. Muqtada’s record of siding now with, now against the protests went over poorly with his own base, a fervent slice of which had been on the streets fraternizing with the demonstrators. Kadhimi promised accountability, a key demand of the protesters, for the hundreds who had been killed.
Unlike most previous premiers, Kadhimi had no roots in Iraq’s Shia religious parties. Yet he needed their unanimous support and had to defer to them when forming his cabinet. Here lay the biggest obstacle to real reform. The parties wanted early elections, and Kadhimi delivered these in October 2021. Sudani, his successor, took office but only after a year of political deadlock and street turmoil that featured Sadr supporters invading both parliament and the Republican Palace. Sudani owes his position to the Shia Coordination Framework parliamentary bloc and its head, the archsectarian Maliki. The prime minister can be expected to bend to their wishes.
The sectarian power-sharing system had designed the premiership to be a hobbled office, but it was never more powerless than during Kadhimi’s tenure. This was so in part because the Shia parties and militias had never wanted him—Abdul Mahdi was their man—and because Kadhimi faced a near-impossible bind in trying to satisfy both the alienated young Iraqis in the streets and the entrenched ruling elite.
During his tenure, investigations were started, independent Iraqi professionals made lists of those killed, procedures were prepared for holding suspects accountable, and reparations were paid to relatives. The suspects in the killings were mostly members of pro-Iranian militias. Their response was to continue their campaign of assassinations, including of high-profile Kadhimi supporters such as Hisham al-Hashimi (shot in Baghdad on 6 July 2020). In November 2021, Kadhimi’s home was drone-bombed. Mostly the investigations came to naught, because as soon as a suspect was picked up and charged, judges would be threatened and the suspect set free.
Iraq today does not have a “state” in the accepted meaning of the term, since the means of violence are not concentrated in state hands. Important decisions are not even made by the top officeholders in the country, but by shadowy power brokers, “bosses” in Mafia terminology, who run what are in effect private armies, largely (but not solely) under Iranian tutelage. The demonstrators demanded “a country,” but to have a country in today’s world one must have a proper state. If Iraq is to avoid the fate of the states in Lebanon and Syria, the emboldened militias will have to be dismantled militarily. Kadhimi understood this, but was too weak. He was Iraq’s best hope of the last twenty years, but whenever I would bring up the need to take on the militias with military force, he would say “Kanan, I have a sword made of cardboard; I need time to turn it into one of steel.”
He was not given that time, and anyway was horrified by the prospect of another civil war. The militias are now everywhere, pressing on every lever of power both inside and outside the state; they extort “protection” money from businesses and actively threaten judges, academics, and activists.
Men of Abdul Mahdi’s generation and mindset wield power in Iraq today; that generation, and not the U.S. war of 2003, has brought the people of Iraq to the edge of the abyss. Hope now resides in a younger generation, the one that gave us the Tishreen protests. These brave young men and women were not crushed in 2020. And unlike today’s Iraqi political class, they believe not in sects and tribes but in a country called Iraq, which is why they are now the country’s last best hope.
In light of the picture that I have painted of the last twenty years in Iraq, how should one characterize the U.S. war of 2003? Was it a “liberation” of millions of people from tyranny, or a much hated “occupation”? This has been a hotly debated issue inside Iraq, and still arouses strong feelings. The less controversial 1991 Gulf War had been a “restoration” of an Arab state system violated by Saddam Hussein’s invasion and sacking of Kuwait. It followed a logic much like that of repelling Russian aggression against Ukraine. Saddam attacked the Arab state system in 1990 much as Vladimir Putin would attack Europe’s post-1945 state system in 2022. Whatever our view of the 2003 war, the twin watershed moments of 1991 and 2003 are inextricably linked in the political history of the Middle East.
After a U.S.-led military coalition routed Saddam from Kuwait in February 1991, millions of people in the south and north of Iraq rose up against his tyranny and did what was in Arab politics at that time the unthinkable: They called upon the very allied forces that had been bombing them for weeks to help rid them of their dictator. Nothing like this had happened in the Arab world before. Herein we find not only the roots of the 2003 war, but also an important precedent for the Arab Spring of 2011. Saddam was the first Arab dictator shaped by the post-1967 world of Arab politics, a world dominated by tyrannies, to be toppled. His fall, a momentous occasion for the whole Middle East, opened Arab political culture to the possibility that other dictators could share his fate. The unthinkable was now thinkable outside of Iraq. Whatever might have been the motives of U.S. decisionmakers in 2003—however nefarious or benign or naïve they might have been—there can be little doubt that U.S. actions that year were at least in part shaped by the seminal and too often overlooked “unfinished” Gulf War of 1991.6
If 1991 was about restoring the Arab state system while leaving the tyrant in place at great cost to the people of Iraq, then 2003, coming against the backdrop of 9/11, called the very legitimacy of the whole post-1967 Arab order into question. Once the United States had taken the decision (rightly or wrongly) to remove the tyrant, nothing could stop the earthquake that this decision set in motion. We need to recall that the Arab Spring was preceded by elections in Egypt and Palestine, to say nothing of the huge 2005 popular demonstrations in Lebanon that led to the ejection of the Syrian army from that country.
The reason a U.S. occupation government in 2003 was such a bad idea was that it confused these fundamental issues. Weapons of mass destruction, even if we thought Saddam had some, were never from a strictly Iraqi point of view the main issue. Moreover, anything that can be characterized as an “occupation” conjures up for Arabs dire images of Israel and the Palestinians, or the French in Algeria. The more benign Allied occupations of Germany and Japan after World War II were not part of the Arab world’s lived historical experience. Moreover, Iraqis had not been defeated as a people the way that the Germans and Japanese had been. Rhetorically, Iraqis were supposedly being “liberated” from tyranny and not “occupied,” but these finer points of terminology were lost on ordinary people who had their own history of what these words mean.
Iraqis inside Iraq did not know what everyone in the exiled Iraqi opposition knew: that the United States was never going to linger. This was not a case of the British in India or Israel in Palestine. No sooner had it got in than the United States wanted a way out. One either “occupies” properly, or not at all. And so, focus strayed from the threat that tyranny posed to the Arab world, the 2003 war’s moral rationale became clouded, and possibilities opened for Iraq and the region by Saddam’s overthrow closed under the weight of a mismanaged and ill-fated U.S. occupation. The tyrant’s overthrow was an exceptional moment in the history of the Arab states of the Middle East, and like other such moments, it gave rise to false hopes and dashed dreams, my own included.
What fuels all great political transformations? Hope. What is hope’s enemy? An excess of realism. A democratic activist in 2011 Syria or October 2019 Iraq has no choice but to act against the odds. The deck is always stacked the wrong way. The most important changes in politics are unpredictable and happen at the outer limits of the possible; they are not a function of the lowest common denominator of societies as abused as Saddam’s Iraq, Qadhafi’s Libya, or Assad’s Syria.
In Iraq after 2003, democracy was a possible and unquestionably desirable outcome, but was it necessarily the path that a post-Saddam order would take? Of course not. I conceded as much on the eve of the 2003 war in an interview with Bill Moyers;7 the bleakness of all my previous books was evidence for that. Nonetheless, however slim the chances for democracy were, they were still worth fighting for. This is, after all, a moral stance on the world, not a political calculus. At any rate, democracy is not as important as the cessation of gross abuse, and the restoration of the activity of politics, extinguished under Saddam. We may or may not like the politics that comes out of deeply abused societies, or the kind of regimes that this politics may produce, but the restoration of the activity of politics alone is a necessity that lies at the very heart of what it means to be human.
2. Kanan Makiya, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).
3. That name had been forced upon Bremer by the Council’s Iraqi members. He had wanted to set up a “political” or “advisory” council, but that did not sound important enough to the Iraqis, led by Ahmad Chalabi, so they made Bremer adopt the adjective “governing.”
4. “Unemployment, Youth Total (% of Total Labor Force Ages 15–24) Modeled ILO Estimate—Middle East & North Africa,” https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.UEM.1524.ZS?locations=ZQ.
5. John Fea, “Lepore: ‘Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass,’” Current, 14 November 2018, https://currentpub.com/2018/11/14/lepore-anyone-who-makes-an-identity-based-claim-for-a-political-position-has-to-reckon-with-the-unfortunate-fact-that-stephen-douglas-is-their-forebear-not-abraham-lincoln-or-frederick-douglass.
6. See the essays I wrote under the pen name Samir al-Khalil in the immediate wake of the Gulf War: “Help Iraq Save Itself,” New York Times, 27 March 1991; “Iraq and Its Future,” New York Review of Books, 11 April 1991.
7. I told Moyers, “I don’t want American soldiers patrolling Iraqi cities. That would be a terrific mistake,” and I agreed with him that introducing democracy to Iraq would not be easy, expressing the thought that federalism could be “the thin end of the wedge for democracy in Iraq.” See “NOW with Bill Moyers—Transcript, Special Edition: March 17, 2003,” www.shoppbs.pbs.org/now/printable/transcript031703_full_print.html.
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