The 10-year mark for the start of the war in Iraq is hardly something to commemorate, but it serves as a reminder to review the good, bad and the ugly. USIP’s Manal Omar reflects on the state of Iraq today.

sectarian strife
Photo courtesy of NY Times

The 10-year mark for the start of the war in Iraq is hardly something to commemorate, but it serves as a reminder to review the good, bad and the ugly.  

The reality is that the situation in Iraq today cannot be reduced to one simple dichotomy.  The situation remains complex.  I often describe the progress of Iraq as an odd dance – two steps forward, one step back, and then three steps to the side.  In order to understand the situation in Iraq accurately, it is important to avoid hindsight judgment or a classification in the extremes.  Instead of noting a dour anniversary, now is the time to pause and take stock of where Iraq is today.

The Good

Let me start with the good.  The one area that represents a notable improvement is the development of an active civil society – which didn’t exist under Saddam Hussein. Through organizations, university campuses, and individual leadership efforts, Iraqi citizens have shown a strong resilience and determination not to relapse into the sectarian violence that threatened to rip the country apart from 2006 to 2008.  At the same time, there is a vigorous voice of opposition and protests reflecting a population that can now challenge a poorly-functioning government.  None of this was possible, let alone fathomable, 10 years ago.

Similarly, even when the national government may be stagnant, the provincial councils are also becoming more active and influential.  More and more, there is an understanding that all politics is local.  Partnerships between civil society and provincial councils to improve basic serves, increase job opportunities, and provide public security are increasing every day.

The Bad

Acknowledging the good does not mean we need to shy away from identifying the many obstacles facing Iraq today.  Iraq’s political landscape is tense, divided, and increasingly dysfunctional. What started off as an active and vocal parliament has deteriorated into a weak one largely taking its cues from the Prime Minister. The prime minister’s move to consolidate power has resulted in his control of the government, the security forces, and the national agencies that were designed to be independent bodies.  

Although security has improved, it is far from being stabilized.  Large-scale coordinated attacks continue, and assassinations occur on a frequent basis, especially around national events.  Al-Qaida and affiliate organizations have resurged, taking hold in the Sunni areas once again.  

Making matters even worse, there is understandably a lack of confidence in the Iraqi army’s ability to provide protection.  

The formation of “Jaish al-Mukhtar” – a new Shia militia - is a step backward after spending lots of effort to disband the Mahdi army. The re-emergence of Shia militias to counter the extremist Sunni elements undermines the legitimacy of the formal security forces, and indicates their ineffectiveness. It also may indicate that whoever is behind it is either creating a tool that is outside the system to do their dirty work (now targeting Sunnis to push them out of Baghdad again), hedging in preparation for any all-out chaos where the Iraqi army falls apart.

The Ugly

As bad as things are within Iraq today, the picture becomes just plain ugly when you factor in the volatility of its neighborhood.  If Iraq cannot defend itself from another sectarian civil war, the state could become so weak that it is engulfed in a broader regional conflict.

At the forefront of the potential nightmare is Syria, Iraq’s neighboring country going through its own ugly nightmare.  Tens of thousands of refugees have escaped to Iraq.  The Iraqi Army is faced with the challenge of trying to maintain the security of the border, and it is a burden that is exhausting the resources of the security forces.  At the same time, it has resulted in direct clashes with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which led to 48 Syrian soldiers being killed in Iraq.  

The Sunni opposition in the western Iraqi provinces has begun to tie its interests more and more with the Free Syrian Army.  It is not uncommon to see the FSA flag flying side-by-side with the Iraqi flag in Anbar.  This has emboldened the Sunni extremist groups and al-Qaida, and has strong potential for escalation.  This is further enhanced by growing regional sectarianism, and attempts to define the current conflicts as a power struggle between Sunnis and Shias.

Iran also has the potential to undermine the modest gains in Iraq.  After the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Iran’s interest shifted to supporting a unified Iraq that it can influence. Yet, simultaneously, Iran does not want a strong Iraq that could be a competitor. It is still using Iraqi politics in its proxy fights with the U.S. and other regional competitors, primarily Turkey and the Persian Gulf countries.

Finally, Iraq remains a central prize for both Iran and Turkey in their fight to establish themselves as the regional power.  Whereas Iran has great political influence, Turkey continues to take the lead in terms of economic influence.  Turkey is leveraging its influence in Iraq through the Kurds and the Sunnis, and has been publically and harshly critical of the Shia government. Turkey and Iraq are indispensable to each other, so their economic ties remain strong despite low political moments.

The Start Date

Although there are very clear lessons learned and large challenges ahead for the country, there is also a lot of good that has emerged.  Unfortunately, our current focus on rehashing the justification for war, the mistakes made, and the partisan finger-pointing  leaves little room to recognize and assess accurately what progress the Iraqis themselves have made.   

As we move beyond this so-called anniversary, our own challenge will be to cease looking backwards and inwards.  Ten years later, it is finally time to hold the Iraqis accountable for their accomplishments and their shortcomings.  

How do you see the future of Iraq unfolding? Send us your thoughts by submitting a comment below.

Manal Omar is USIP’s director of Iraq, Iran and North African programs.

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