Iraq 20 years after the invasion: How life is better and worse
Democratic elections are happening, but political elite are hampering change, say experts
When the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, the stated goal was to seek out and destroy Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction and end the regime of Saddam Hussein.
But when those weapons never materialized, the hope was that by toppling Saddam and ending his brutal dictatorship, Iraq would at least emerge as a new democracy where Iraqis would enjoy new freedoms and a significantly improved standard of living.
Twenty years later, however, the results are decidedly mixed, say Iraqi experts, with gains coming at a huge expense. Estimates of war-related deaths vary but the Iraqi Body Count has estimated around 200,000 civilians killed following the invasion.
"Iraq is doing better than it was 20 years ago. But there's two caveats to that," said Hamzeh Hadad, an Iraqi Canadian and an adjunct fellow with the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, in a telephone interview from Baghdad. "It's not up to where we want it to be or what. Many had their hopes up in 2003 at the removal of a dictator.
"And two, it came out of big cost. The price that was paid, was enormous."
No time to breathe
Certainly before the invasion, Iraqis were being jailed, tortured and killed by Saddam's regime. And many Iraqis were dying because of the UN sanctions, Hadad said.
But "from the invasion, from the insurgencies, from the sectarian civil war, from fighting ISIS, there were so many lives lost," he said.
Hadad noted that with all that strife, Iraq hasn't had time to "really breathe."
"We're looking at the 20th anniversary of the war, but I think we haven't really been rebuilding up until the last four or five years. And even then, what happened in those four or five years, you had a global pandemic."
Still by a number of indicators, Iraqis today are doing better than 20 years ago. As far as democracy goes, since the 2003 invasion there have been six elections, eight different governments and seven different prime ministers.
The Human Index Indicator is a metric compiled by the UN Development Programme to quantify a country's "average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living."
In 2003, Iraq was given a score of 0.579, where life expectancy was around 65.9 years. Now its rating is 0.686 and life expectancy is at 70.4 years.
As well, according to UN figures, Iraq's GDP per capita in 2003 was $855. In 2021 it was $4,686. Luay al-Khatteeb, former minister of electricity of Iraq from 2018 to 2020, said electricity capacity has increased ten-fold since 2003. Meanwhile, oil production has roughly tripled, he said.
Still, observers say, many of those measures don't paint the full picture of Iraq and the significant challenges it still faces 20 years later.
Democracy in Iraq
"Democracy, free elections, federalism and market economy — all these things are complete radical changes to Iraq post regime change — most certainly a significant development from back in 2003," said Al-Khatteeb.
"I think there is a long way ahead of us in terms of establishing an accepted level of democracy. But again, this is part of the gradual progression of any state building post four decades of dictatorship and military rule."
Feisal Amin Rasoul al-Istrabadi, a former Iraqi diplomat, says it's praiseworthy that elections have gone off on time every time.
"We have not delayed elections," he said. "While I cannot tell you that the elections were as pure say as elections are in the Scandinavian countries, I can say the results were not known before the ballots were counted. And there were many surprises along the way. So we have had the peaceful transition of power."
Still, Freedom House, which annually rates the level of freedom of different states, categorized Iraq in 2023 as not free.
"Iraq holds regular, competitive elections, and the country's various partisan, religious, and ethnic groups generally enjoy representation in the political system," the Washington-based non-profit said in its report. "However, democratic governance is impeded in practice by corruption, militias operating outside the bounds of the law, and the weakness of formal institutions."
There is a nostalgia for Saddam Hussein.... There was more stability, ironically.- Zainab Saleh, associate professor at Haverford College
One of the biggest problems with Iraq democracy is that for over 20 years, the political class has never shifted from thinking of itself as an opposition to the previous regime to actually having governing responsibility, Istrabadi said.
"It's a hodgepodge, a political class that has never had a shared goal, a shared vision for the state of Iraq and whose agenda seems to be dictated more by personal agenda than by sort of a larger vision for the state.
"I don't think anyone in the Iraqi political class is thinking about what is Iraq 20 years from now. I don't think in 2003 any of them thought what should Iraq look like in 10, 20 years. Fundamentally, it's an incompetent political class which has captured the state and which is going to be very difficult to dislodge."
Meanwhile, militias continue to be a major problem, which has also led to a nostalgia for Saddam.
"There is a nostalgia for Saddam Hussein. It's not because the Iraqis love a dictator. But under Saddam Hussein, you knew you had one enemy. It was Saddam Hussein," said Zainab Saleh, associate professor of anthropology at Haverford College. "There was more stability, ironically. And that sort of violence was coming from one group — his regime. After 2003, you don't know where the violence is coming from: militias, al-Qaeda, ISIS, the US military."
"I talked to Iraqis who suffered under Saddam Hussein. They lost family members in prison, and now they say Saddam Hussein's days are better now," said Saleh, author of the book Return to Ruin: Iraqi Narratives of Exile and Nostalgia.
A young 20-year-old Iraqi in 2003 may have thought that following the fall of Saddam, this could be a good opportunity for Iraq.
"And to be sure, people have become fabulously wealthy," Istrabadi said. "But generally, the people who have become that wealthy have been extremely well connected to the political classes. So it's kind of robber baron capitalism as opposed to true regulated free market in which everyone has a relatively equal shot."
While Iraq does have a private sector, one that's bigger than in 2003, it's "extremely limited," said Al-Khatteeb.
"And the main reason is because the political parties are running the show. They want to continue controlling, to get a share of the pie by financial allocation to public sector that they control by political quota system."
Meanwhile, says Istrabadi, the only real job prospects for Iraqis is to be a government employee. But the government can't afford its large public payroll.
"We have failed to create a true private sector, which means that our government sector is bloated and is in fact unsustainable. At this rate, the state of Iraq is unsustainable," he said.
According to Istrabadi, judging by the provision of services in Iraq, governance has been largely a failure.
"The fact remains that there has been no investment and infrastructure, there's been no real planning for a post-petroleum world. We still flare gas rather than capture our natural gas, we burn away a fortune every month," he said.
"The provision of services is very poor. I cannot say to you that we've built a hospital or a school worthy of the name in Iraq," he said. "It is a poor country because of the lack of investment in their infrastructure over so many decades."
In theory, Iraqis have been granted more freedoms since the downfall of Saddam.
"You constitutionally have a right to speak. There is a plethora of media in Iraq," Istrabadi said.
In 2019, protests erupted against then-prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's government with demonstrators demanding an overhaul of a political system they see as profoundly corrupt and keeping most Iraqis in poverty.
While hundreds were killed and thousands injured, it was a scene unlikely to have taken place during the rule of Saddam.
Saleh said those mass protests, while sparking violence and death, also sparked hope.
"The amazing thing is that the younger generation is what gives me hope for Iraq. The protesters denounced the sectarian political system, corruption, lack of basic services, and high unemployment. In short, the protesters belonged to a generation that only knew Iraq as a failed state, and aspired to forge a different path by demanding a country and rights, through the slogan 'We Want a Country' (Inryd Watan)."
Hadad said the protests were very symbolic in that it was "literally the moment Iraqis stopped having to worry about terrorists, stop having to worry about wars and just started demanding, you know, a better life."
With files from Reuters
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