20 years after the U.S. invasionIraq's wounds are slow to heal
On 20 March 2003, tanks rolled into Iraq from Kuwait. They were supposed to bring freedom to the country and its citizens. Operation Iraqi Freedom, the name of the military invasion by a "coalition of the willing" under U.S. command, brought suffering and destruction. Germany and France were not involved, the United Kingdom and Ukraine were. Resistance towards the occupiers, civil war between the different ethnic groups and religions, and the terrorism of al-Qaida and subsequently IS were all consequences. Iraq fell into chaos.
Yesterday, no-one and nothing marked the 20th anniversary of the U.S. army invasion, a day that shook the Middle East to its core. Iraq's Kurdish president was in Suleimaniyye to prepare for the upcoming celebrations of Nowruz, the Kurdish spring festival. The Shia prime minister went about his normal working day.
The Iraqis' rejection of the Americans is immense, from Erbil in the north to Basra in the south. George W. Bush's war permanently weakened the authority and prestige of the USA. Since then, neighbouring countries like Iran, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia have done everything they can to prevent Iraq's democratisation. The road ahead remains paved with obstacles.
Back when the current U.S. president, Joe Biden, was chairman of the foreign relations committee in the U.S. Senate in 2006, terror was raging in Iraq. Iraqi insurgents allied themselves with al-Qaida, there were daily attacks on U.S. troops – and anyone who had dealings with them. Civil war broke out in Baghdad between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
The Americans searched around for a solution to prevent Iraq from sliding into total chaos. Following the invasion – apart from the meticulously planned military operation – they had no plan for the country's political future. At the time, Biden suggested dividing the country into the Kurdish north, a region for the Sunnis, and one for the Shias. This did not happen, but the division of power along ethnic and religious lines by U.S. administrator Paul Bremer had devastating consequences.
Baghdad – the diversity of Iraq
"Under Saddam, we were all Iraqis, under the Americans we became Sunnis, Shias and Kurds," says Mohammed Shirwani in Baghdad. "Neighbours became enemies." Mohammed is 59 years old, an electrical engineer, Kurdish, born in Leipzig and raised in Baghdad. Unlike in the south of Iraq, where the majority are Shia, in Baghdad, the multi-ethnic state shows itself in all its diversity. Besides Shia and Sunni Arabs and Kurds, the city is inhabited by Turkmen, Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans and Kaka'i.
What had always made Iraq so unique suddenly became the country's undoing. Three years after the invasion, the sectarian differences had hardened to such an extent that a great wave of migration swept over Baghdad. Sunnis moved out of their homes for fear of being killed by their Shia neighbours. And vice versa. Mixed families broke up or fled to northern Iraq, to Kurdistan. While this segregation is just beginning to dissolve, it still largely persists.
The proportional representation introduced by the Americans to distribute power stubbornly remained in place. Only once did Iraqis ally themselves across sectarian lines, when a wave of protests swept from Basra to Baghdad. While protesters in the south demanded more electricity and jobs, in Baghdad they became political. Tahrir Square in the heart of the city became a "village of renewal" for two years, in 2019 and 2020. But then came the clampdown. The protest movement was suppressed using every means at the authorities' disposal: over 600 demonstrators were murdered, while many others were kidnapped and threatened.
The protesters fell silent, they had not achieved their goals. "Still, as a young person, you can now live your life the way you want without anyone telling you what to do," says Shirwan, Mohammed's 22-year-old son. Almost half of Iraq's 43 million inhabitants have been born since the fall of Saddam. They know the dictator only by hearsay. "The social changes and freedoms will remain," Shirwan is sure. The authorities have lost power as a result of the protests, he says. He can now walk hand in hand with a girl on the banks of the Tigris, which was unthinkable in the past.
Everywhere from Basra to Baghdad, Iran is said to be partly responsible for the brutal suppression of the protests in Iraq. The militias linked to the neighbouring country have well-trained snipers and orders not to endanger Iran's influence in Iraq under any circumstances. Their influence is enormous. Without Iran, nothing works in Iraq.
Tehran sits at the cabinet table in Baghdad and decides who will be in government. Without Iran's consent, no president comes into office, no prime minister is sworn in. While the neighbouring country's influence was negligible under Saddam Hussein, it has expanded enormously since the U.S. occupation. Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, Iran filled the power vacuum they left behind with lightning speed – and at every level. The USA opened the door and the Iranians walked in. Getting rid of them again is proving to be an immense challenge.
Basra, the neglected oil metropolis
"It was a huge celebration," Suhad Abdel Razzaq exults when she talks about the Gulf States Football Cup held in Basra in January 2023. Not only because Iraq won the Cup, but more importantly because FIFA agreed to hold an international tournament in Iraq for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein 20 years ago. "The whole world was with us," Suhad says exuberantly. Just like before, when people from the Gulf states came to Basra at weekends to enjoy themselves.
Bars, restaurants, fancy hotels, nightclubs: back then, Basra had everything the Gulf Arabs didn't. Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and it was all over. Basra suffered more than any other city in Iraq from the three Gulf wars. First, the war against Iran, when every metre of the Shatt al-Arab, the border between the two countries, was bloodily fought over.
Then in 1991, when a coalition led by the Americans and President George Bush senior drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait, and finally in 2003, when Bush junior invaded and toppled Saddam Hussein.
Suhad was born in Kuwait in 1975. Her father worked there as a journalist. When the second Gulf War began, the family returned to Basra. "Suddenly Iraqis and Kuwaitis were enemies," Abdel Razzaq comments sadly on the situation. Basra became Iraq's poorhouse. Even today, Basra still lags behind the other parts of the country in its development. Its water, electricity and infrastructure are still inadequate. In order for something to finally happen, thousands took to the streets in Basra in 2018.
They were fed up with the neglect, with corrugated iron shacks, lakes of sewage by the roadside, mountains of rubbish that stank to high heaven in summer. The protesters set fire to the provincial council building, the offices of the political parties, the governor's palace. They demanded that the oil revenue received by the city and the province should for once go to the people and not just end up being pocketed by politicians.
The region around Basra has the largest oil reserves in the country. More than two million barrels are pumped there every day. The new governor, say the people of Basra, is also corrupt, but only siphons off half what his predecessor used to.
At least roads are now being repaired and resurfaced, a bridge is being built over the Shatt al-Arab, new houses are springing up like mushrooms, including five-star hotels, and rubbish is being collected. "Basra is going global," says Suhad Abdel Razzaq, looking confidently to the future. As a port city, Basra has potential. Another international football event wouldn't hurt either.
Kurdistan – Iraq's endangered showcase region
Erbil, the Kurdish metropolis in northern Iraq, is unrecognisable. For ten years, there was an unprecedented building boom. Countless new districts were built, skyscrapers soared into the sky. While terror raged in the rest of the country, the Kurdish autonomous regions were a safe haven. International organisations settled here, businessmen from Baghdad and Basra opened offices.
Iraq Kurdistan recorded the highest direct investments in the region. "The Kurds suffered enormously under Saddam," says Bebak Dawdi, a master's student in international relations in Erbil. "When he was gone, there was a lot of euphoria." Kurdish politicians rallied together in a bid to develop the region. Kurdistan was to become a mini Dubai. "The mood was very optimistic. Things were going well, politically and economically."
But the transition to modernity happened too fast, says Nihad Qoja, who was mayor of the city of Erbil at the time and had previously lived in Bonn for more than 20 years. People were unable mentally to cope with the rapid leap. In 2013, the real estate bubble burst and the construction cranes came to a standstill. A year later, IS went on the rampage. Although the four Kurdish provinces were not targeted by the brutal jihadists, thousands of refugees flocked to Iraqi-Kurdistan to seek shelter. This proved an enormous burden for the region, already in a state of upheaval.
After IS was driven out and the refugee camps gradually dissolved, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani decided it was time to declare a separate Kurdish state. Without consulting the adjacent states, he held a referendum in 2017 in which over six million Kurds were asked to vote on whether they were for or against an independent state.
More than 90 percent were in favour. But Barzani had not reckoned with Iran, Turkey, Syria or the central government in Baghdad, all of which vehemently protested against the referendum. Even the Americans, staunch allies of the Kurds, considered Barzani's move unrealistic and dangerous. Since then, Masoud Barzani has resigned, the economic crisis has worsened and a dispute with Baghdad is currently blocking any further development.
Although once a given, no university graduates have been taken on in the civil service in Kurdistan since 2013, says master's student Dawdi. Those who came top of the class always used to be able to get a job in the civil service. "That's all over now." These days, many students go abroad once they graduate, he says. Thousands have already left Kurdistan. The former model region is in crisis.
© Qantara.de 2023