Iraq is disintegrating as a country under the pressure of a mounting political, social and economic crisis, say Iraqi leaders.
They add that 10 years after the US invasion and occupation the conflict between the three main communities – Shia, Sunni and Kurd – is deepening to a point just short of civil war. “There is zero trust between Iraqi leaders,” says an Iraqi politician in daily contact with them. But like many of those interviewed by The Independent for this article, he did not want to be identified by name.
The escalating crisis in Iraq since the end of 2011 has largely been ignored by the rest of the world because international attention has been focused on Syria, the Arab uprisings and domestic economic troubles. The US and the UK have sought to play down overwhelming evidence that their invasion and occupation has produced one of the most dysfunctional and crooked governments in the world. Iraq has been violent and unstable for so long that Iraqis and foreigners alike have become desensitised to omens suggesting that, bad as the situation has been, it may be about to get a great deal worse.
The record of failure of post-Saddam governments, given the financial resources available, is astounding. One of the reasons many Iraqis welcomed the fall of Saddam in 2003, whatever their feelings about foreign occupation, was that they thought that his successors would restore normal life after years of sanctions and war. To their astonishment and fury this has not happened, though Iraq now enjoys $100bn (£66bn) a year in oil revenues. In Baghdad there is scarcely a new civilian building to be seen and most of the new construction is heavily fortified police or military outposts. In Basra, at the heart of the oilfields, there are pools of sewage and heaps of uncollected rubbish in the streets on which herds of goats forage.
I was in Baghdad at the end of January when there were a couple of days of heavy rain. For years, contractors – Iraqi and foreign – have supposedly been building a new sewage system for the Iraqi capital but none of the water was disappearing down the drains. I drove for miles in east Baghdad through streets flooded with grey, murky water, diluted with sewage. I only turned round in Sadr City, the Shia working-class bastion, when the flood waters became too deep to drive through. Shirouk Abayachi, an advisor to the Ministry of Water Resources, explained to me that “since 2003, $7bn has been spent to build a new sewage system for Baghdad, but either the sewers weren’t built or they were built very badly”. She said the worst flooding had been where in theory there were new sewage pipes, while those built in the 1980s worked better, concluding that “corruption is the key to all this”.
Theft of public money and incompetence on a gargantuan scale means the government fails to provide adequate electricity, clean water or sanitation. One-third of the labour force is unemployed and, when you include those under-employed, the figure is over half. Even those who do have a job have often obtained it by bribery. “I feared seven or eight years ago that Iraq would become like Nigeria,” says one former minister, “but in fact it is far worse.” He cited as evidence a $1.3bn contract for an electricity project signed by a minister with a Canadian company that had only a nominal existence – and a German company that was bankrupt.
Iraqis looked for improved personal security and the rule of law after Saddam, but again this has not materialised. The violence is much less than during the mass slaughter of 2006 and 2007 when upwards of 3,000 Iraqis were being butchered every month. But Baghdad and central Iraq remains one of the most dangerous places on earth in terms of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings. It is not just political violence that darkens lives, but a breakdown of civil society that leaves people often looking to tribal justice in preference to police or official courts. One woman said that: “If you have a traffic accident, what matters is not whether you were right or wrong but what tribe you belong to.”
The same sense of insecurity in the face of arbitrary government taints political life. If there is not quite the same fear as under Saddam, it often feels as if this is only because the security forces are less efficient, not because they are any less cruel or corrupt. The rule of Nouri al-Maliki, Prime Minister since 2006, has become a near dictatorship with highly developed means of repression, such as secret prisons, and pervasive use of torture. He has sought to monopolise control over the army, intelligence service, government apparatus and budget, making sure that his supporters get the lion’s share of jobs and contracts. His State of Law Coalition won only 24 per cent of the votes in the 2010 election – 2.8 million votes out of 19 million registered voters – but he has ruled as if he had received an overwhelming mandate.
Dr Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish leader and member of parliament, gives an excoriating analysis of what is wrong with present-day Iraq. “It is a failed state,” he says. “The country is run by gangs [within the government] and gangs are more important than law. Maliki rules because he is head of the armed forces. Iraq is run by force, but force does not mean that those exercising it are in control.”