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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Fifteen years on, Saddam's legacy and the flaws in Iraq's fractured politics

The rule of a deposed dictator cannot continue to be the excuse for a failure to resolve issues

A bus displays a poster advising people to check about their voting information ahead of Iraq's parliamentary elections / AFP
A bus displays a poster advising people to check about their voting information ahead of Iraq's parliamentary elections / AFP

April 2003. The US-led war on Iraq was at its peak and nine days into the month, Saddam Hussein’s rule over Iraq came to an end. In some ways, the fall of Saddam was inevitable with an international coalition of military might to "shock and awe" Iraqi forces. And yet for many Iraqis, it was hard to believe a quarter of a century of his rule was over. Fifteen years later, Saddam’s legacy of terror haunts many of his victims but the era that followed has not laid to rest many of the ills blighting the country – from a collapsed economy dependent on state spending and oil revenues, to a weakened health and education system and high levels of corruption.

Saddam’s fall from power in April 2003 continues to cast a shadow on Iraq and the region. In one week, the image of his statue being torn down and with it, his tyrannical rule, will come to the minds of millions of Iraqis and those who were affected by the Iraq war.

One question that strikes a sensitive cord with Iraqis who opposed Saddam is: "Was the war worth it?" Who can determine whether someone else’s life lost in the many battles since 2003 was "worth" losing? And no one can second guess what path Iraq would have taken under an emboldened dictator if the American threats of 2002 came to nothing. However, what is certain is that the decisions made after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the enforcement of American authority through the Coalition Provisional Authority led to detrimental developments in the country.

One of the enduring legacies of the CPA was its decision to dismantle Iraq’s army and security apparatus, which allowed for the rise of Al Qaeda and eventually ISIL in Iraq. Moreover, the broad sweeping de-Baathification process led to the gutting of Iraqi ministries, public entities and professional services of the most capable employees. Some of the strongest proponents of de-Baathification continue in government while others have faded away, or like Ahmed Al Chalabi, have died. And yet the spectre of de-Baathification remains in place, with a recent decision to seize the assets of former Baath party members impacting thousands of Iraqis. The CPA was also responsible for decisions to sell off more than 60 state entities that used to produce locally manufactured goods like refrigerators and radio sets. The dismantling of local, state-controlled manufacturing was not replaced by any subsidised or supported enterprise, nor could the private sector flourish with rampant corruption and bureaucratic hurdles. Until today, Iraq’s economy is stagnant, with 90 per cent of government revenues still dependent on oil.

There is an irony in reading recent news stories about Paul Bremer, the former self-declared administrator of the American occupation in Iraq, who ended up as a ski instructor in Vermont. While he continues his life without bearing any responsibility for his decisions, 15 years later American troops remain in Iraq. In a much smaller number and with a different mandate, last reported to be close to 9,000 to "assist and advise" the Iraqis, American soldiers continue to play a role in Iraq. The Pentagon is actively avoiding declaring exactly how many troops are in the Middle East, especially with the complicated war in Syria.

While Saddam Hussein, Bremer, George W Bush and others who played crucial roles in the lead-up to and the immediate aftermath of the 2003 war have much to answer to, it is Iraq’s current political elite who are responsible for its fortunes today. This year, Iraqis go to the polls once more. And while the political system suffers from dysfunction, each election has witnessed a turnout greater than 50 per cent – meaning a majority of voters buy into the system. However, a large part of the populace remains disenfranchised. Different factions within the country cannot reconcile their differences if the entire population does not feel represented by its government. This disenfranchisement is also echoed in high levels of unemployment among Iraq’s youth, in certain areas above 25 per cent, which adds to a sense of despondence among Iraqis.

The aftermath of the Kurds’ ill-advised referendum on independence means that today they are in a more difficult position now than they were in 2003. Over 15 years, the Kurds were able to make great gains in power and political presence in Baghdad. However, much of this was lost when Kurdish leaders insisted on going ahead with a referendum opposed by the Iraqi government, regional powers, the US and Europe. The question remains on how the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil can develop. Until Iraqi leaders agree on how the federal system of Iraq should function, the ties between the capital and provinces will remain fraught. Furthermore, 13 years of running a country with a flawed constitution compounds problems and disagreements over how the country is governed. Close to half of the constitution's articles remain subject to debate and possible amendment, a dilemma the incoming parliament must address.

None of these issues are new. However, Saddam’s legacy cannot continue to be the excuse for a failure to resolve them in 2018.