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How the U.S. ensured Iraq had no real chance at real democracy

An expert explains how the U.S. crafted a corrupt petrostate operating under the guise of democracy.

Twenty years ago today, the U.S. invaded Iraq under the code name Operation Iraqi Freedom, setting in motion a disastrous war that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and over four thousand Americans, and triggered a new era of instability in the Middle East.

Every time an anniversary for that catastrophic war passes, American commentators and former government officials who supported it engage in a nauseating ritual of trying to escape accountability. They downplay what was foreseeable, obscure the lies that served as pretexts for the war and critique the invasion primarily through a strategic lens rather than a moral or an ideological one. 

These revisionist narratives typically get some pushback. But it’s not enough to re-examine what Americans got wrong. A true reckoning requires examining what happened to Iraqis. And while many are broadly familiar with the huge number of Iraqi casualties, few in the West have paid attention to how the war reshaped Iraqi politics and society. What did the U.S.-sponsored “democracy-building” project actually produce in a country that Freedom House ranks today as definitively “not free,” despite its nominal status as a democracy?

To get an analysis of the war's political effects on Iraq, I called up Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow and the project director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House, and a co-author of “Once Upon a Time in Iraq.” Mansour, who is currently on one of his regular visits to Iraq, discussed the contradictions of the U.S.'s political goals in nation-building, how elite exiles worked with the U.S. to reshape the Iraqi political system to suit their own interests, and the dark prospects for genuine democracy in Iraq.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Zeeshan Aleem: What’s your assessment of why the Iraq War was waged?

Renad Mansour: I think it became very clear in the early days of the George W. Bush administration that Iraq, Saddam Hussein and his regime were a problem in their view. And so after 9/11, there were attempts made to link Hussein to Al Qaeda, to include Iraq in the new war on terror. Then there was another argument made shortly after, which was that Iraq had these weapons of mass destruction. And then you had this idea, driven by the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, that democratizing Iraq would serve U.S. interests and would somehow lead to more democracies and fewer anti-American regimes in the Middle East. That was the kind of at least the thread that they were trying to weave.

There was this idea that they could do it. That even with flimsy intelligence, with uncertainty whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, even with very flimsy connections, if any, to Al Qaeda and the war on terror, it didn’t matter, because Iraqis would welcome the Americans and the Brits with open arms and therefore democracy would have made it worth it in any case.

It was a political project. It was very clear that Saddam had turned into enemy No. 1 since the Gulf War when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. And throughout the decades, the U.S., even under the Clinton administration, had continued to work with different Iraqi opposition forces outside of Iraq trying to force regime change. 2003 was the opportunity, and so they had to find a way to sell it to their people.

How serious was the democracy-building project?

Mansour: When WMDs weren’t discovered, it became important for the U.S. and the U.K. and their allies to prove that Iraq was becoming a democracy quickly. There was this rush: We need a constitution; let’s just have an election ASAP. But critically, what was missing, and the contradiction in all of this, was they didn’t actually speak to most Iraqis. 

They drafted the constitution, created a political system and set up elections without actually engaging with the people of the country.

Renad Mansour

The Coalition Provisional Authority would be formed soon after the invasion, which became the occupying power, led by Paul Bremer, who had no experience in Iraq. And they became the sovereigns, working exclusively with returning exiles who themselves had not been in Iraq for decades. They drafted the constitution, created a political system and set up elections without actually engaging with the people of the country. It became symbolic, because they built a “green zone,” where they hid, and Baghdad and the rest of the country became known as the “red zone” — you don’t go there, it’s too dangerous, it’s too risky. 

What ended up happening was elite exiles who were coming back empowered themselves. They built a political system that would serve their interests, not the interests of the people. So that’s the contradiction of Iraq’s democracy you have. There are the trappings of democracy, but in reality you’re not close to democracy.

Who were those exiles, and what were their interests?

Mansour: The exiles were specific political parties. There were two primary Kurdish parties, who had fought a long insurrection against Saddam, who had gassed Halabja in 1988. You also had a few Shia Islamist parties, who had been based in Iran or Syria or London. And then a few individuals like, for example, Ahmed Chalabi, who was a secular Shia who was close to the Bush administration. Their interests were, first, to remove Saddam, but second, to become powerful. 

There are three big decisions the CPA made in the early days of the occupation which would destroy the state. The first decision was the disbanding of the military. They also removed the border guards, removed the police. Why? Because many of these exiled actors also had their own armed groups. They didn’t trust the Iraqi military, because one day it could come back and remove them from power. So they designed a system in which Iraq’s military would never be strong again. That’s why, when ISIS emerges later on, only a few thousand fighters are able to take a third of the country, and the military just flees. That’s why Iraq’s been unstable, because there hasn’t been a coherent monopoly on violence by the state. 

The second decision is that they institutionalized ethno-sectarianism. These exiled groups coming back, especially the Arab groups going back to Baghdad or other cities where they haven’t been for decades, faced a question: How were they going to claim and build constituencies? How were they going to speak on behalf of these people who they haven’t really met? The way to do it is to develop a political system that’s based instead on identities. You create these constituencies which institutionalized ethnic and sectarian divides, and gave them the ideological power that they needed to represent people that they didn’t know. 

And the third big decision they made was de-Baathification, which was meant to remove Saddam’s party, the Baath Party, from power. Instead of just removing the inner circle, this group of exiles working with the Americans removed over 40,000 civil servants — the entire human capital of the state, all of the service ministries, like the ministry of electricity, teachers, hospitals. In Saddam’s Iraq, you had to be a member of the Baath Party to have these jobs at a senior level. All of these people are removed, and it is a massive mistake, because it guts the state. But in place of those people, these parties were now able to hire their own people, who may not have known exactly what they were doing as such, but they were loyal to the parties. Iraq is a very wealthy state — its annual budget can be up to or even more than $100 billion a year — so having these civil service positions gave these parties access to Iraq’s wealth. 

The U.S. was simultaneously suppressing movements for freedom from foreign domination at the same time as facilitating the formation of a constitution and an electoral process to “free” Iraq. What legacy does that tension leave in a country’s political identity?

Mansour: Well, if you look at the kind of the insurgencies against the system and against the Americans that arise immediately after the invasion and occupation, there are two big parts. One is the Sunnis, who didn’t have the same type of access to political parties as the Kurds and the Shia did, who were building this new state. They were excluded from it, because they weren’t part of the opposition. They feel like they’re not getting their fair share. And this begins to form a new opposition, and part of that opposition turns into these Salafi and jihadist groups, Sunni groups that create insurgencies, Al Qaeda, and the network that eventually formed ISIS.

On the other side, you have a big Shia group led by this populist cleric named Muqtada al Sadr. These are poor, urban Shia who had lived in Iraq the whole time, and because of that they weren’t included in the meetings held by the [old exiled] opposition. And they’re not happy with the American occupation coming in giving power to these different groups. They have this armed group, which is known as the Mahdi Army, and they launched an insurgency against the government and its American backers. 

So the Americans are empowering specific rulers, especially those who came from outside, but by doing so excluding big parts of those who are in Iraq, who also want to have a voice and are not having that voice. 

Author Naomi Klein said her "shock doctrine" thesis applied to Iraq in that the economic architecture of the country was dismantled and turned into a laboratory for radical free market policies. How did that inform Iraq’s democratization process?

Mansour: There was this idea of just opening up Iraq. It has such immense oil wealth that it was very attractive. Iraq was historically a kind of centralized state, including health care run by the government. The neoconservatives come in, and they try and open everything up — they want everything to be privatized. That then leads to further economic disparity and a bigger division between the wealthy and the rest of society.

After the first elections held in 2005 during the war — some groups protested said they felt they were excluded based on their ethnic and religious backgrounds. Has there been progress since then in terms of trust and participation in the electoral process?

Mansour: No, it’s been the opposite. If you look at voter turnout, the highest voter turnout was in 2005. People at the time were like: Is this going to work? Is this actually going to change our lives? And also the voting seemed important — you even had senior clerics, like the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, telling people to go out and to vote for Shia parties. From the Kurdish perspective, it was seen as ‘we need to vote because this is our chance to never allow Saddam to come back again and those atrocities to happen again.’ There’s a huge push in that election in 2005 to get people to vote. The Sunnis don’t vote, because they’re excluded, and other groups that were not part of the initial design, they don’t vote — but the turnout is the highest one. 

Every subsequent election, that turnout has plummeted. Because if you had that hope that you may have had in 2005, well, four years later, you realize, wait a minute, we still don’t have electricity, we still don’t have basic services, the water is making us sick, we don’t have medicine. And so each subsequent election — 2010, 2014, 2018, 2021 — the voter turnout goes down.

I’m talking about grand corruption — the political system is corruption. It’s not illegal. It’s the game that has developed.

Renad Mansour

Iraqis learned that elections aren’t actually where you can have your voice. Because unless you’re one of those parties that came into power in 2003 and still rules, it’s not going to matter what the election results are — the same people come together, they make a pact and they share the spoils of the state, and ordinary Iraqis don’t benefit from that. 

So instead, they try to protest. And you have protests in 2015-16. But more recently, and more crucially, in 2019, many young Iraqis came out to the streets — what became known as the October protest movement in Baghdad and south of Iraq. And this was them demanding change, because the ballot boxes weren’t doing it for them. And instead of listening, this political system repressed them and killed over 600, wounded tens of thousands. Since then, it’s become far more dangerous in Iraq to protest. Activists are being jailed. They’re being assassinated. They’re being kidnapped. So that is the state of the so-called democracy.

Beyond elections, how democratic is Iraq, and what are the chief obstacles to achieving a more democratic state?

Mansour: Iraq’s judiciary is not independent. Iraq’s parliament is unable to really bring about change, because parliamentarians act as rubber stamps for backroom deals made by the ruling parties. Iraq’s ministries and senior civil service have all been captured by the political parties. These parties are designing a system in which they are empowered, in which they divert money from the government towards their own patronage networks with impunity. As such, the state is captured and unable to hold to account the ruling elite.

The corruption kills. We did this research at Chatham House, and we found that over 70% of medicine in Iraq is fake or expired. Although the Ministry of Health has billions annually in its budget to ensure medication, those billions are not translating into medicine, because they’re going to patronage networks. When Iraqis are sick and don’t have access to proper medicine, that kills.

To me the biggest challenge to genuine democratization is corruption. And I’m not talking about petty corruption, which is paying bribes. I’m talking about grand corruption — the political system is corruption. It’s not illegal. It’s the game that has developed.

Is there a way to assess how most Iraqis feel about the war in retrospect and the way it reshaped their country?

Mansour:  A lot of Iraqis, on the eve of the invasion, were actually, perhaps, let’s say in favor of it. Living under Saddam, especially with the sanctions, was awful. So, they cautiously said, ‘Hang on a minute, are we actually going to get democracy?’ But very soon, that sense of cautious optimism plummeted, and they began to see that actually what the Americans are doing is creating a system that empowers this new elite and great corruption. So they started to regret it. 

And I think if you ask most Iraqis today, it’s a very difficult question. Because many will say Saddam was bad, they should’ve removed him, but many Iraqis now have almost a sense of nostalgia for Saddam because of what they’ve been through since. They’ve been through ISIS. They’ve been through civil wars. They’ve been through repression of protests. And so many across the country, even those who were for it, today say it was not worth it.