Twenty Years After the War to Oust Saddam, Iraq Is a Shaky Democracy
from Middle East Program

Twenty Years After the War to Oust Saddam, Iraq Is a Shaky Democracy

Fighters from the Iran-linked militia Saraya al-Salam withdraw from a protest near Iraq’s parliament building.
Fighters from the Iran-linked militia Saraya al-Salam withdraw from a protest near Iraq’s parliament building. Ameer Al-Mohammedawi/picture alliance/Getty Images

On the two-decade anniversary of the U.S. invasion, Iraq is weakly governed, leaving it prone to instability and meddling by neighbors—especially Iran.

March 17, 2023 11:15 am (EST)

Fighters from the Iran-linked militia Saraya al-Salam withdraw from a protest near Iraq’s parliament building.
Fighters from the Iran-linked militia Saraya al-Salam withdraw from a protest near Iraq’s parliament building. Ameer Al-Mohammedawi/picture alliance/Getty Images
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq twenty years ago is rightly considered to be a major strategic blunder that destabilized the Middle East, consumed significant American resources, and sapped the power of the United States. For Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, displaced and wounded millions more, and wrought widespread destruction.

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In the years after the invasion, codenamed Operation Iraqi Freedom, debate persisted about its purpose. Did the United States invade Iraq as part of its fight against terrorism and to disarm Saddam, who was suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction? Or was the goal of regime change in Iraq to forge democracy in that country and the broader Middle East? The answer to both of these questions is yes. Condoleezza Rice, who was U.S. President George W. Bush’s national security advisor during the invasion and later served as secretary of state, wrote in her 2017 book, Democracy: Stories From the Long Road to Freedom, that the decision to invade was linked to global security concerns, but that democracy was central to the president’s decision making. According to Rice, it was Bush’s belief, and thus his administration’s policy, that “the freedom gap was in part to blame for terrorism and instability in the region.” And so the United States would not hand over post-Saddam Iraq to another strongman, but instead work to build Iraqi democracy.

A Difficult Work in Progress

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Two decades later, President Bush’s goal remains unfulfilled, though Iraq is in ways more democratic than many of its neighbors. Iraq has held elections regularly since January 2005, it has a parliament that, despite significant cleavages, functions as more than a rubber stamp for the government, and there have been peaceful transfers of power from government to government. At the same time, Iraq is not yet what political scientists might refer to as a “consolidated democracy,” in which the threat of changing the outcome of elections after the fact is more unlikely than not. This risk remains present given the pervasiveness of armed militias and related political parties that have used violence or the threat of violence to intimidate the government and other political actors. 

Another problem is the spoils system set up after the invasion, which reserves the presidency for an ethnic Kurd, the prime ministry for a Shiite Muslim, and the speakership of parliament for a Sunni Muslim. This system both encourages spectacular corruption and emphasizes ethnic and religious difference at the expense of a genuinely national Iraqi identity. These related problems tend to undermine confidence in the political system. 

Of course, Iraqi unity was a problem even before the American invasion. The three Kurdish regions of Iraq were never incorporated into the country in ways that made sense to Kurds. This long-running problem was accentuated in the years leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, during which Iraq’s Kurdish regions built a state within a state under American protection. After the invasion, when Iraq broke down into civil conflict and the Kurdish regions remained relatively peaceful, Kurds appeared to be driving toward independence. They are divided on the issue, however, and the three predominantly Kurdish provinces remain part of Iraq.  

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Regime change also heightened tension and violence between Iraq’s majority Shiite community and its Sunnis. Yet, new polling by Iraqi market research group IIACSS indicates that both communities are—after years of declining confidence in the state and its institutions—optimistic about Iraq’s trajectory. This could be because, following a tortuous period of government formation that lasted more than a year, the country has a prime minister, its foreign exchange reserves have increased to almost $100 billion after a 2021–2022 spike in oil prices, and the government is committed (at least rhetorically) to addressing the corrosive problem of corruption.

Shrinking U.S. Military Presence

Against this political background, about 2,500 U.S. service members remain in Iraq. At the height of the “surge” in American troops in 2006, there were about 170,000 American soldiers in the country. U.S. President Barack Obama withdrew all combat forces five years later. Many thousands of troops returned to Iraq in the summer of 2014 after the self-proclaimed Islamic State sacked Mosul and took over significant portions of the country. Since then, the threat of the Islamic State has not been extinguished, but it has diminished, and with it the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. Those who remain are primarily present in an advisory and training role.

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For all the progress the Iraqi armed forces have made in terms of proficiency and professionalism, the state has neither complete control over the border nor a monopoly on violence. A prominent feature of Iraqi politics is the presence of militias—with the combined strength of over one hundred thousand fighters—whose relationship to the state is ambiguous. The authorities are reluctant to take them on for political reasons and out of concern for stability. As a result, Iraqi troops have to contend with an array of other armed forces that often work at cross-purposes to the military.

In addition, Iraq’s sovereignty remains compromised: Turkey’s security forces maintain a string of bases in northern Iraq (some dating back to the mid-1990s) from which they target the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that has been waging an on-again off-again war against Turkey since the mid-1980s. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is also present in Iraq, mostly to coordinate with pro-Iran militias. And in recent years, Israel has been suspected of undertaking air strikes against the IRGC and pro-Iran groups in Iraq.

Iran’s Corrosive Influence

The presence of the IRGC and the existence of pro-Iran militias, notably the Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and Saraya al-Salam, both underscore the influence Tehran has in Iraq. Where Iraq and Iran once balanced each other in the Persian Gulf, the American invasion greatly weakened the former, providing an opportunity for Tehran to ensure that Iraq could never again threaten Iran as it did during the countries’ 1980–1988 war.

Iranian influence extends beyond militias, however, and into Iraq’s government ministries and economy. Iraq depends on Iran for electricity and the country has also become a dumping ground for cheap Iranian goods, including household items, foodstuffs, and cars. Iran’s influence and its disregard for Iraq’s sovereignty have bred significant resentment among the Iraqi population. Street protests in recent years have denounced the Iranian presence in Iraq.

When Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi came to power in 2020, he made a concerted effort to improve Baghdad’s relations with the Arab world. He used the personal ties he developed while serving as Iraq’s intelligence chief to improve relations with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Along with Egypt and Jordan, Iraq developed a diplomatic mechanism to coordinate economic and geopolitical cooperation. Under Kadhimi, Iraq also sought to de-escalate tensions in the region, presiding over talks between Saudi and Iranian officials. It remains unclear whether Kadhimi’s successor, Mohamed Shia al-Sudani, will take over this role, as he is more closely identified with pro-Iran groups. But since assuming office in October 2022, Sudani has sought to balance Iraq’s relations with Iran and Arab countries.

Despite some progress, Iraq is not quite a democracy, it is vulnerable to the machinations of its neighbors, and it remains wracked with political, economic, and social problems.

Will Merrow and Michael Bricknell created the graphic for this article.

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