The man they called “The Butcher of Baghdad,” shortly after U.S. soldiers pulled him from his so-called spider hole in Iraq. | Photo: Archives
It has been more than nine years since the government of Saddam Hussein was toppled by the US-led invasion of Iraq, and it has been seven and a half years since the former dictator was executed by a court of the nation-in-transition. Now Iraq is several months into its first experience in years of genuine independence, with US troops having ended their long, fraught period of residence last December. Amidst the memory of extremely violent years of occupation and amidst the ongoing loss of innocent life and a growing mass of evidence of endemic corruption and government repression, it might be reasonable to ask whether the Iraq of today is any different from the Iraq that was controlled by the iron fist of Saddam Hussein.
But it would be foolish and disingenuous to claim that nothing has changed. A country can't very well be invaded, its government replaced, its long-suppressed conflicts and power struggles brought to the surface, without coming out of that fire looking different. Iraq has been much transformed by Saddam's ouster and its aftermath. Yes, there have been a wide range of changes to the troubled nation, but whether each of those changes is for the better or worse is an open question. Indeed, enough of the improvements have been counterbalanced by worsening instability and familiarly bad governance that one could be justified in concluding that although the power and danger and suffering have all been rearranged, the net change is so insignificant that the country is in effectively the same state that it ever was.
Last Wednesday, a series of bomb attacks rocked the country, hitting every major city except Basra and Najaf, killing at least 90 people and wounding some 260 others. The attacks were evidently timed to coincide with the festival of Moussa al-Khadim and to symbolically target Shiite pilgrims as a show of force by the Iraqi Sunni minority that had held a greater share of power under the Saddam Hussein regime. Between the ideological motive and the raw bloodshed, this latest wave of terrorism is a chilling reminder of the sectarian violence that still plagues Iraq, as well as the danger faced by virtually every Iraqi at all times. It cuts against the rosy picture of a blossoming, democratized nation that is put forth by some analysts, especially in the realm of business and economics. And it gratifies the more measured statements and even the outright pessimism of others.
The Persistence of Violence
President Obama's nominee for ambassador to Iraq, Brett McGurk, is one of the latter sort, painting a fairly bleak picture of the state of the place and its immediate outlook. According to McGurk, al Qaeda in Iraq is every bit as present and capable now as it was last year before US forces withdrew. He had estimated that the group was capable of carrying out a major attack every 30 to 40 days, but given that the latest attack came only about two weeks after another that killed 17, it seems that this may have actually been overly optimistic, or at least that it left out data regarding other insurgent groups.
The death toll from mass bombings in Iraq this year is now up to 420. This is a far cry from the effects of violence earlier during the US occupation. Between 2005 and 2008, the nation averaged 60 deaths per day. Things grew particularly dire between 2006 and 2007 prior to the success of the military surge that suppressed much of the sectarian conflict. But during May of 2007 there was an average of 180 terrorist attacks every day, and that year a survey of Iraqi civilians indicated that a stunning 90 percent of respondents thought the country was better off under Saddam Hussein. And even though things have gotten substantially better since 2007 when 13,600 people died from acts of terrorism, the toll for 2011 was still over 3,000 and was worse than the year before.
Estimates of the number of people killed by the regime during Saddam's 24 year reign range from 300,000 all the way to 800,000. If the country happened to return to its 60 death per day rate, which is more than plausible in the event that the population falls to full-scale civil war, then it would take only 14 years to reach the lower end of the death toll under Saddam. At a little over seven years since their first elections, the newly democratic country is already giving Saddam a run for his money with regard to killing.
What's more, the failings of the current Iraqi government presumably make the situation worse, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki alienating a Sunni minority that grows steadily more combative in response. McGurk claims that "fear, mistrust, and score settling still dominate political discourse" in Iraqi governance. Amidst this climate, the nation's political institutions are unsuccessfully wrestling to gain a measure of meaningful stability. Two years after the latest elections, the government is not even fully formed. There is persistent deadlock over the appointment of key ministries, and there are often parliamentary vacancies, in some cases due to Sunni members being arrested on accusation of links to terrorism.
In fact, even Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi is facing 150 charges that allege that he utilized his personal guards to carry out bombing campaigns over a period of years. The warrant was served while Hashemi was out of the country visiting foreign governments, and he is now being tried in absentia while he resides in Turkey and speaks from there about the situation in Iraq and steadfastly denying the charges against him. His explicit criticisms of the stifling effect of sectarian and racial prejudices in the struggling country belie the mentality of a violent terrorist, but then his public statements presumably could be a cover for very different sincere attitudes.
On the other hand, it could be that the charges have been trumped up at the behest of the Shiite Prime Minister, Maliki. The conduct of the court at Hashemi's trial may support this notion. In May, the Vice President's defense council walked out of the courtroom in protest of refusal to wait for a response from an Appeals Court regarding a change of venue from Criminal to Federal Court before proceeding with the trial. Shortly thereafter, the court also rejected the defense's request to summon President Jalal al-Talabani as a witness.
The abuse-of-power explanation of Maliki's accusations fit also with more general claims that the prime minister is consolidating power and giving the impression of an imminent return to dictatorship. If that is indeed the direction that the nation's government is heading, it is toward a dictatorship with a distinctly religious flavor that was lacking in the Saddam Hussein regime, which, for all its monstrous abuses, was decidedly secular. The prior government, for instance, constitutionally guaranteed and actively defended the rights of women to work and go to school. Since the modern alternative threatens theocracy, secular officials are attempting to push President Talabani to initiate a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Maliki.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, Grand Ayatollah Kashim al-Hairi has made the shockingly obstructionist official statement that "It is haram for any part of Iraq's ruling authorities to vote on the side of a secular person." Clearly, the sectarian divisions run deep on both sides. And while it remains difficult to determine with certainty who is guilty, and of what, the alternatives indicate either that the government is led by a Shiite Prime Minister who refuses to cooperate with his political opposition and is willing to misuse the courts to eliminate threats to his power, or that Sunni factions of the government are plagued with active terrorists who wear their political posts as masks over their true intentions of reclaiming and holding power by violent means. Quite possibly both are true to a degree.
Freedom sans Stability
Even if only the Sunni factions are at serious fault, the terrorist element being that pervasive dramatically increases the likelihood of death tolls being pushed back up toward the outrageous levels that put the violence of the new nation on par with that of the old regime. But of course the mere extent of the killing isn't the only concern. The killing in today's Iraq might lose something in actual numbers, but it gains something in the universality of the fear it creates. Under Saddam, there was a sense that people could remain safe by remaining quiet. Today, the people have traded away a perhaps tenuous stability for some measure of freedom. The seriousness of the sacrifice still leads some Iraqis to claim that they lived better lives under Saddam.
Certainly, some individuals and some groups lived in constant fear of the regime. 50,000 Kurds were killed in ethnic cleansing efforts ordered by Saddam. And although his last major campaigns against either them or Shiite groups came in 1991, no doubt many Kurds spent the ensuing decade wondering when the brutality would visit them again. For other groups, however, their experience of that sort of perennial terror came only after the country fell into the chaos that waited on the other side of dictatorship. Now anyone, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or political persuasion can be in danger from random politically or religiously motivated violence virtually anytime they step out of their home.
It is entirely an open question which is the worse: constant, precise, and unilateral killing and intimidation aimed at the suppression of free speech, or an endless power struggle leaving a practically indiscriminate assortment of dead bodies scattered in its wake. Judging by the available indicators about the direction the current government is going, modern Iraq may not have to choose. If things don't improve, it could be facing both horrors at once.
A Return to Dictatorship
Vice President Hashemi has described modern Iraq as trending toward a police state. The sentiment has been echoed earlier amidst an alarmingly rising tide of reports of corruption, repression, and mismanagement. The concerns culminated, last year, in Iraqi protests seemingly molded in the image of the Arab Spring. And those same concerns were virtually proven correct by the government response to that protest, which was to suppress it by force, leaving 13 people dead. That speaks to the terrible possibility that after executing their dictator, holding landmark elections, and trading in their basic stability for the sake of the simple gift of free expression, even that goal has not been realized.
It is because of both the constant danger of terrorism and the evidence of deliberate government suppression that the NGO Freedom House lists Iraq as "not free" in its annual report on political freedom throughout the world. It is with increasing impunity and increasing obviousness that the Maliki government is intimidating and obstructing journalism and political activity that might foster criticism of his administration and slow his personal consolidation of power.
Ziad al-Ajili is an Iraqi journalist who founded the free speech watchdog organization Iraqi Journalistic Freedoms Observatory in 2004. Under Maliki's rule he has had his offices ransacked and computer hard drives confiscated, and he has been accosted by armed men and arrested without warrant. The government makes little secret of the fact that it considers free press a threat, and a new law under consideration would serve to punish citizens for spreading information that it considers to be against the public interest, and place limits upon access to the internet.
Furthermore, it seems that the harassment that Ajili was subject to was tame by comparison with what the government might do to more outspoken critics. In attendance at the gathering that led to 13 protesters being killed was radio commentator Hadi al-Mahdi, who hosted a popular broadcast criticizing the current regime and calling attention to instances of corruption. After the crowd dispersed, Mahdi was one of four
|The new Iraq has frequently just put its own spin on the old familiar terrors.|
journalists detained and taken to a nearby army headquarters, where he was beaten, subjected to electric shocks, and threatened with rape. Rape, it bears noting, was an accepted tool of intimidation against women in the Saddam Hussein regime, which again suggests that the new Iraq has frequently just put its own spin on the old familiar terrors.
After Mahdi was released, he began to receive regular threats via e-mail, post, and telephone. He continued to courageously broadcast his show for a time, until eventually he began to seriously fear for his life. Those fears proved to be well founded when in September he was found dead in his home, having been shot twice in the head. It seems, then, that the threat to journalists now comes both from insurgents and from the government, meaning that members of the press are in danger both out in the open and while in hiding, where increasingly repressive security forces can usually find them.
Corruption and Incompetence
But even severe repression of the media can't hide the plain facts about the circumstances that the Iraqi people are facing in spite of, or perhaps because of the actions of their government. During the Saddam Hussein regime, it was sometimes unclear whether the misappropriation of funds and the failure of government functions was a result of corruption or incompetence. What is clear is that Saddam Hussein failed to take as much interest in his people's well-being as in his personal enrichment. Between the end of the Gulf War and the year 2000, he built 48 palaces for himself, and he routinely mismanaged the oil-for-food program to serve his interests despite economic sanctions. But it may be that his associates lacked the skill to provide for the needs of the people anyway.
In the case of the Maliki regime, functions are similarly plagued by either corruption or incompetence or both. In any event it is clear that the government is failing in its responsibilities. It still cannot deliver regular civil services to the citizenry, including running water, and garbage pickup. The demand for electricity is growing, but the supply is not even remotely keeping pace. Blackouts are still commonplace and many homes rely on their own generators to provide what the government cannot. This is all true even though the situation realistically should be better than it is. Iraqi GDP doubled between 2010 and 2011, and oil revenues are climbing meteorically. In 2008 the government purchased modern gas turbines for electricity generation, but these have yet to be used properly. Once again, the reason could be either bureaucratic failings of deliberate misuse, but in either case there are shades of the problems created by the old regime, which Iraqis and foreign observers alike had hoped would be left behind.
Why, in the midst of all this, would anyone have a particularly optimistic view of an Iraq that transcends the memory of Saddam Hussein? The answer, it seems, is overwhelmingly "money," and more specifically "oil money." Crude production is now up 45 percent since the end of 2003, and 20 percent over last year. Recovery of the industry and the overall economy began in 2009 with substantial security improvements, and serious growth started in 2010. The country is now producing at a rate of 2.5 million barrels per day, providing enough income for 95 percent of the government's revenue. Foreign investors have come to see major potential for Iraqi oil. Technical and service agreements with foreign companies helped to push recovery forward in the first place, and in 2011 foreign business activity in the country was up 40 percent.
Some analysts predict that crude oil production could reach 6 million barrels per day by the end of the decade, making Iraq by far the world's second largest OPEC producer, behind only Saudi Arabia. With sanctions on Iran dragging down its output, Iraq is already poised to overtake its neighbor, something it did under the Saddam regime only for one brief period after the Iran-Iraq War. Of course, the sanctions now putting Iran at a disadvantage are easily reminiscent of the sanctions on Saddam's Iraq that no doubt kept its production artificially low. If oil money is the greatest proof that post-Saddam Iraq is a better place than Iraq prior to 2003, then it means that the most significant aspect of the nation's well-being wasn't based on anything implicit in its dictator's governance, but rather the way the international community responded to his reign.
No doubt many are now anxious to turn their attention elsewhere. Some observers suggest that the heightened Iraqi oil output will provide an ideal source to replace what is lost in sanctioning Iran. Theoretically, that will make it easier to put pressure on the Iranian government without serious consequences for the United States. But people who accept that idea easily presumably forget why the US essentially played both sides of the fence during the Iran-Iraq War.
Things have changed since the removal of Saddam Hussein. It may be that the effect has been to simply rearrange the misery, but one plain fact about the impact of the US invasion has obvious policy implications. The dynamics of power in Iraq have now reversed, giving majority leadership over to the religious majority that was long subordinated to a secular Sunni government under Saddam. It is a majority population that Iran and Iraq share, just as they share 5 major oil fields. Once enemies, Iran and Iraq now have an increasingly close partnership. Iran contributes extensively to Iraqi reconstruction, and the two nations had signed over 100 economic and cooperation agreements by 2010. More than that, Iran is known to be arming Shiite militias in Iraq, and it has perpetrated cross-border attacks on Kurdish rebels.
Iran has tremendous influence in Nouri al-Maliki's political inner circle, which fact helps to contribute to sharing of crucial policies. Recently, a spokesperson for the Iraqi Oil Ministry stated that Iran and Iraq plan to coordinate their positions at OPEC. This is quite meaningful since Iraq has reclaimed long-lost status as a major player in the trade organization, and Iran's production has not yet fallen off too much. It might be argued, then, that even as the United States rid the world of a terrible dictator, it also removed obstacles that might have prevented an entire nation from acting against certain American interests. Still, the future of Iraq and its policies is not yet certain. Much will depend upon the ongoing democratic endeavor of overcoming sectarian violence and political mistrust.
The rosiest images of Iraq's future rely on the sentiment that wealth ultimately solves all problems. On this view, even the problem of media repression will go away as more money leads to more outlets with a greater degree of clout and market influence. There's something to be said for this kind of optimism, but it isn't a foregone conclusion. Foreign and domestic investment isn't something that just happens because a country proves to be resource rich and politically stable. Investment is every bit as much a cause of economic growth as a consequence of it.
An Iraq free of Saddam Hussein is free of economic sanctions and ripe for foreign business relations. If in the future the world finds that the place is being run by someone just like Saddam Hussein, or that it is defined by circumstances no better than those he created, then it could mean a thorough reversal of fortunes. As of now, Iraq is better off largely because of the foreign support it is receiving. But too severe an escalation in sectarian violence or government repression will almost certainly mean a substantial loss of foreign support.
Whether the country is permanently better off without Saddam Hussein remains to be seen. It remains to be seen if the violence can be controlled, the sectarian divisions somehow reconciled. It remains to be seen whether the government can make itself work without falling back on reliance upon a strongman. But unlike at the height of Saddam's reign or during the US occupation, it can now be said that, at least for the time being, the outcomes rest solidly in the Iraqi people's hands.