Friday,24 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1428, (31 January - 6 February 2019)
Friday,24 May, 2019
Issue 1428, (31 January - 6 February 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Iraq’s unlearned lessons

Sixteen years after the overthrow of Saddam, some of his diehard supporters hope to topple his successors with the help of US intervention, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraq’s unlearned lessons
Iraq’s unlearned lessons

The United States has a long history of changing regimes in other countries. Its latest intervention was in Venezuela last week when it closely coordinated, if not directed, an unknown opposition leader’s attempt to overthrow president Nicolás Maduro.

Washington’s intervention to topple Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein and impose regime change in the country was arguably responsible for one of the greatest disasters in US foreign policy history, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its catastrophic aftermath.

Opposition to international actors targeting states in order to change their governments, a process known as foreign-imposed regime change, has been growing since then. Such attempts have always been seen as undemocratic and considered as illegal and violating international law.

Yet, some Saddam loyalists in Iraq are reportedly seeking foreign support to try to topple the country’s Shia-led government in Baghdad, effectively hoping to place Iraq in the middle of a new international contest.

Media reports have suggested that Iraqi activists close to Saddam’s eldest daughter Raghad Hussein convened a meeting this week in Berlin to work out plans to topple the Baghdad government.

The organisers hoped to bring together Iraqi government opponents from inside and outside Iraq to try to forge an opposition movement that would oust the government with foreign help.

They said former officials and army generals in Saddam’s regime had taken part in the meeting in Berlin. The main goal of the gathering was to demand international intervention against the Baghdad government, they added.

There was no political statement from the organisers of the meeting, but one of their main objectives was to seek support from US and other world powers for regime change in Iraq, according to media reports.

Earlier this month another group of Iraqi activists met in Michigan in the US to discuss plans for regime change in Iraq and asked for support from the Trump administration in Washington.

Videos posted on the Internet showed a former minister in the US-imposed government after Saddam’s fall unveiling plans to ask Washington to withdraw recognition from the Iraqi government and support a new one following regime change.

Speakers at the meeting in Michigan also suggested that Saddam’s army chief of staff Abdel-Wahed Rabat Al-Shinan be appointed interim president of Iraq after the current government was toppled.

Of course, the push seems to be too bizarre to work even by Iraq’s standards. The groups who are behind the meetings are small and largely irrelevant, and their moves have so far proved ineffective.

It is also not clear if Saddam’s former ruling Iraqi Baath Party, which has built its reputation on anti-US rhetoric, will publicly endorse regime change by the Americans.

The situation in Iraq, no matter how chaotic, is also different from what it was during the run-up to the US-led invasion in 2003.

At that time, pretexts such as Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and his persecution of the Iraqi people made the US-led mission to invade Iraq and change its government by force more palatable to world public opinion.

Iraq today does need change, however. Even as Iraqi political groups have finally succeeded in forming a new government following last year’s controversial elections, doubts remain about whether this will be able to turn the beleaguered nation away from its lingering political and communal disputes.

Iraq’s political elites bear special responsibility for the current crisis for many reasons, and a political standoff remains after the country’s political groups failed to name two ministers for the crucial portfolios of defence and the interior.

Even after declaring victory over the Islamic State (IS) group in 2017, Iraq’s security forces are still struggling to dislodge a lingering insurgency in the country, while across the border the terror group remains locked in a battle to make a comeback.

Many parts of the country IS once controlled have not been rebuilt, and more than one million people remain displaced, causing frustration to build at the slow pace of reconstruction and the restoration of stability.

Iraq has remained an island of instability, lurching from one political crisis to the next. The parliamentary elections last year also further entrenched a greedy political power elite that has led successive dysfunctional governments.

The economic crisis that has ravaged the country since 2013 when international oil prices plummeted shows no sign of abating, and it has grown worse as a result of rampant corruption and mismanagement.

Rising unemployment and the lack of basic services such as electricity and water supplies have led to repeated instances of popular protest directed against the ruling political class.

Millions of Iraqis have been displaced internally or have left the country in recent years, many of them doctors, engineers and other skilled professionals who remain trapped in displacement or exile.

Worse still, many Iraqis even in the country’s Shia heartlands feel marginalised by the political elites that have dominated the post-2003 order and have legitimised their rule by claiming to represent and advance Shia interests.

No doubt there are plenty of reasons why some Iraqis believe their country is falling short of being a working democracy and blame the ruling elite for its gridlock.

For these Iraqis, the four rounds of elections that have taken place in the country since the US-led invasion in 2003 have been used to re-establish the power of the same ruling class and to set its rules of engagement for the next four years.

For all their frustration, many Iraqi Sunnis, including Saddam loyalists, nevertheless participated in last year’s elections and showed signs that they would get involved in the country’s politics.

But the disputed elections, which were marred by widespread allegations of vote-rigging and boycotted by some 56 per cent of the electorate, failed to show Iraq as being capable of democracy and fair play.

The deadlock in removing the country’s increasingly entrenched ruling elite through political means could explain the sudden turnaround in turning to outside actors, and in particular the United States, hoping to invite them to carry out regime change in Iraq.

One of the key factors that could encourage proponents of international intervention is the current tense stand-off between the United States and Iran, together with the belief that Washington should take responsibility for regime change in Iraq.

In the context of the US-Iranian tensions, such advocates of regime change may find that the US has both the clout and the power to intervene in shaping Iraq’s political landscape.

Since the 2003 invasion, the United States has played an active behind-the-scenes role in Iraq’s politics, including in forming the country’s national governments.

Another major factor is the presence of a huge US force in Iraq under the pretext of helping the country’s security forces fight IS. On 25 January, former Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi disclosed that the number of US soldiers and contractors in Iraq had exceeded 10,000 before he ended his term in October.

Though officially the US troops should be confined to military bases where they train their Iraqi counterparts and provide logistical support, the Iraqi public has started seeing these troops either in patrols or walking around in city streets including downtown Baghdad in recent weeks.

Do Saddam loyalists and other opponents of the Baghdad government think they are regaining confidence?

The answer is probably yes, and the reason can be found in the US intervention in Venezuela and the assumption that they can secure similar support for regime change in Iraq.

Yet, beyond the question of whether seeking foreign intervention is politically and morally correct, Iraqis are still suffering from the disastrous consequences of the US-imposed regime change after 2003 that is still keeping them knee-deep in chaos.

Iraq is certainly a failed state, but the drivers of that failure run deep. A decade-and-a-half of political instability and communal divisions have placed the country in a constant fear of collapse.

Stalled economic performance, government mismanagement, a lack of basic public services and chronic corruption are driving the explosion of populist anger.

Iraq’s quagmire is the result of the US-designed system installed following the 2003 invasion that created an inept elite aligned with an ethno-sectarian oligarchy that has almost turned the political landscape into a series of fiefdoms.

Iraq needs an overhaul of its dysfunctional political system, but Iraqis cannot gamble once again on the United States and its catastrophic policy of regime change.

add comment

  • follow us on