The pictures went around the world: toppling the huge Saddam statue in Baghdad on 9 April 2003 was the dawning of a new political era in Iraq. Yet the euphoria over the new-found freedom was soon followed by disillusionment. Nagih Al-Obaidi has the details
There is no date more contentious for the Iraqis than 9 April 2003 – the day on which US troops captured Baghdad and put an end to 35 years of dictatorship by the Baath Party. There are some who call it a day of "liberation", while others prefer the term "downfall of the old regime". And another group regards this date as the "beginning of a foreign and despised occupation".
The governing council established by the USA declared 9 April an official public holiday, annulled two years later by the new Iraqi government. The former parliamentary president Mahmud Al-Mashhadani even referred to 9 April as a "black day in the country's history".
Despite all these differences, one thing is clear: on that day, the old regime elite was swept away and a new political leadership began to be established – coupled with a great many hopes. But what came after that was beyond all imagination: devastating terrorist attacks, major military conflicts, a bloodbath between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims killing tens of thousands.
It took the US army only three weeks to advance on Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein's regime. On the way they met with only isolated resistance, not merely because of their military superiority – the majority of Iraqis were glad to see the downfall of the despised dictatorship.
The dilemma of "implanted" democracy
The mass looting and chaos across the country cast initial clouds over the general elation. Yet many nevertheless believed in a potential success, as the country is one of the few in the Middle East with three key resources: water, energy and a relatively well educated population.
But the end of the dictatorship was not unlike opening Pandora's box. The subsequent unprecedented violence made it clear that there is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to liberation.
One can even suspect that militant forces, whether followers of the Baath Party or Al Qaeda terrorists, wanted to prove a point to the Iraqis and other countries in the Middle East: that any attempt at liberation from local despotism with the aid of foreign forces would lead to draconian punishment.
The Iraqi reaction came in the form of a saying: "In the face of death, you accept any disease."
What has happened in Iraq over the past seven years seems to serve as proof of a thesis widely spread by Islamic theologians, justifying despotism: "Better a hundred years of unjust rule than one day of chaos."
What depths of hate must be behind Islamist fanatics from far-off countries, who take on the trials and tribulations of a long journey, only to blow themselves up on busy marketplaces, in mosques and hospitals in Iraq? Even funerals and weddings are not safe from this hate. And the terrorists' objective has always been to kill as many people as possible.
The fanatical will to provoke a denominational civil war has been unprecedented. Certain Arab media have reported on the victims of violence in Iraq with undisguised schadenfreude. And some Iraqis have been wondering whether it was really worth getting rid of a brutal dictatorship, only to have to put up with terror, militia and death squads in its place.
One step forwards, two steps back
Three times over, the Iraqis have defied threats of terror and gone to the ballot boxes in droves, most recently for the parliamentary elections on 7 March 2010. And every time, the disappointment set in soon afterwards. Politicians from across the spectrum have been so occupied with their political in-fighting that any sense of a new era has gone up in smoke.
Whereas the electorate have shown great courage every time, the new political elites have so far failed miserably: hopelessly trapped in feuding, they have sacrificed national interests on the altar of personal, denominational and ethnic conflicts in the struggle for power and wealth.
Begun under the old regime, the politicisation of religion appears to be an unstoppable development, to this day constituting a major hurdle to uniting the population under a shared national identity – independent of faith, denomination and ethnicity.
Instead of clearing up the crimes of the dictatorship, influential forces have made use of the de-Baathification process as an instrument of revenge against their political opponents. Many political, economic and social reforms have come to a standstill for this very reason. And all this in a region generally bitterly opposed to any democratic development.
Poor prospects for democracy in the region
The hope that Iraq's democratisation might set a precedent in the Middle East, plagued as it is by dictatorships, has proved an illusion to date. In fact, the Iraqi experiences are rather off-putting for the country's neighbours.
Arab rulers often respond to calls for more freedom with the warning: "Do you want Iraqi conditions here too?"
Authoritarian regimes, be they in Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia or Iran, are now more firmly installed than ever before. Even Obama's US administration has backed down over promoting democracy in the region, taking it off its agenda. After the bitter experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the new focus is on damage limitation.
There are doubtlessly various scenarios for the future, as the major changes in the political arena emerging from the recent parliamentary elections show.
Yet whether a functioning democracy can ultimately develop in Iraq depends to a great extent on the will of the country's political elites – and whether these elites genuinely succeed in fighting out their conflicts in peace.
© Qantara.de 2010
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Editor: Lewis Gropp
The economist Nagih Al-Obaidi was born in Iraq and writes regularly for various Arabic newspapers on the economy and reforms in Iraq.