Why Iraqis fear victory

IRAQ’S NATIONAL GRID is a metaphor for the country’s problems. Access to electricity, the starting point for all modern human activity, is the last problem you would expect in a country with plentiful hydrocarbon reserves, big rivers and as much sunshine as the Garden of Eden. (1) But the electricity supply illustrates the failings and the convolutions of the political system.

The state provides only a patchy service, for just a few hours a day. It’s no better in Shia-majority areas: the system is not sectarian in its dysfunction. In the southern city of Basra (built on top of huge oil reserves), where temperatures can exceed 50°C, the local authorities foresaw riots if power cuts continued into the summer, and asked for help from neighbouring Iran. That says a lot about what can be expected from Baghdad.

Iraqis are forced to rely mainly on improvised collective systems, the result of ad hoc privatisation and decentralisation. Every neighbourhood has big generators capable of supplying a whole street. From these come a forest of wires, each corresponding to an individual user, past or present. Many no longer work, but that doesn’t matter: you just add new wires, a process of accumulation that recalls the successive layers added, without success, to Iraq’s sprawling security apparatus.

Individuals must often fend for themselves. Each house has its own generator, in case the neighbourhood generator breaks down, but these smaller machines also need fuel and maintenance. Iraqis regularly find themselves sitting in the dark, watching the static glow on their TV screen, waiting for something, somewhere, to come back on. Allegorically, that’s what they have been doing since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, 13 years ago. (2)

The paradox of this unwarranted complexity is that it consumes all their energy, and for no good reason. Everything seems needlessly complicated, forcing people to show the utmost resilience and ingenuity. The irony is that this attitude becomes part of the system, so that it works, in spite of everything. Under Saddam’s regime a crude joke summed up the principle: Saddam decides to test the Iraqis’ patience by charging a toll on bridges over the Tigris (which runs through Baghdad). His henchmen say no one is complaining, in spite of the cost and the traffic jams. Saddam increases the toll several times, but nothing changes. So he orders the men on the bridges to rape everyone who crosses them. The tailbacks grow, and eventually people start to get angry, saying ‘When are you going do to something about increasing the number of rapists?’

In Iraq today, no one has anything positive to say about the political class, which attracts unanimous scorn. Since the US troops left in December 2011, Iraq has faced endemic violence and a political crisis that has held up every major piece of legislation debated in parliament. Whatever support some politicians once had has vanished: people now know they are interchangeable. A disillusioned intellectual said: ‘In the end, if you look beyond their squabbles, they’re all pals at the top. But they want us to hate each other, so we won’t notice they’re manipulating the conflicts. They are fighting for percentages, not for sects. They all agree on one thing: the need to preserve and milk the system.’

Anything rather than chaos

The general weariness has produced great maturity within Iraqi society. Individual narratives often blend virulent sectarianism with a shrewd and realistic interpretation of the absurd divisions that have cost ordinary Iraqis and benefited their supposed representatives so much. (3) Yet demonstrations since August 2015, caused by the fall in the price of hydrocarbons in an economy still based exclusively on clientelist redistribution of oil revenues, have attracted little support. (4) The vast majority of Iraqis prefer a nonsensical system to the risk of chaos, are easily satisfied with a few handouts, or place their hopes in emigration.

The young also have a military option: they can go and fight for a faction, either out of conviction or just for status and pay. The perpetual war – with ISIS as its latest focus – fulfils functions that have become essential to the system: it keeps people busy and distracts them from government blunders; it fuels tensions, giving the government a certain legitimacy by default; and it generates a vital fallback economy. The security forces and the militias absorb unemployment. Shia warlords launder their spoils by opening fashionable restaurants. Sunni tribal leaders profit from the fighting (which justifies financing auxiliary forces), the destruction (which leads to contracts for reconstruction) and the humanitarian crisis (which attracts aid they can misappropriate). And it gives the political class the international support it needs to continue its sack of the country, without answering to anyone, under the pretence of a struggle to ensure Iraq’s continued existence.

The US, which for 13 years has been anxious to rid itself as soon as possible of the responsibilities it incurred by invading, has tried many indecisive solutions and expedients. It is training Iraqi units capable of fighting the permanent war, but is failing to address the system that lives off the conflict.

Worse, the Obama administration is strengthening the latter’s bad habits, prioritising the fight against terror over all other considerations. It demands that Sunnis be allowed to participate in the political process but reduces participation to a few figureheads, detached from their political base, while helping to obliterate, one by one, the major cities associated with Iraqi Sunnism. (5) In line with the prejudices on which the 2003 intervention was based, the US remains wary of the Sunni masses, tolerates Shia militancy and dangerously encourages its Kurdish equivalent.

The real issue is no longer finding a balance between the major ethno-confessional groups. (6) The people of Iraq now mostly accept the current situation as established. It would be wrong to imagine that ISIS is the manifestation of a widely felt Sunni desire for vengeance; it simply moved into the gap left by a state that is both repressive and absent. The gains made by the Kurds may still be contested by the political hierarchy in Baghdad, but to ordinary Iraqis, Kurdistan is no longer even part of Iraq. (7) The country is stabilising in terms of inter-community tensions. The presence of Shia militias at the front excites far more sectarian sentiment among Iraqis in exile and Muslims of other nationalities than it does in Iraq itself.

The situation is like a reverse image of the 1990s, when Saddam’s regime repressed a Shia insurrection in the south, then neglected the local population on the grounds that they were disloyal. Cities were not razed, as they are today in Sunni zones, but huge palm groves were destroyed. Under Saddam, the ‘representatives’ of the Shia population were henchmen of the regime, cronies who had abandoned their roots. The administration and the armed forces remained inclusive, but Sunni culture was dominant.

Today, the music of southern Iraq can be heard all over the country; daily speech has acquired the tones of the working-class shrugi dialect of the south; and, in an almost perfect reversal of roles, Sunnis readily take advantage of the ambiguity of Iraqi identities, modifying their name, address or accent if that makes life easier. This does not mean the Shia are on top, any more than the Sunnis were before. Now, as then, everyone (rightly) complains that they don’t benefit much from Iraq’s wealth.

Sunni sheikhs hover

As time goes on and provides some hindsight, the contours of the political system are becoming clearer. This is a regime without a head, infiltrated by many different networks, which have subverted the state, whose resources and organisations serve those sub-systems. This has resulted in often contradictory phenomena, drawing on different inventories of past behaviours, as if Iraqi politics was inventing itself by reassembling fragments of its own history.

Thanks to the US-led invasion, some sections of the population have grown in influence, notably a petty bourgeoisie belonging to the diaspora or to sada tribes, who claim descent from the Prophet. This social mobility recalls the emergence of the Baath Party, rooted in Iraq’s provincial petty bourgeoisie, which used institutions created under the British colonial mandate to advance itself. (8) A civil servant in Kut said: ‘The difference is that the Baathists were unified by their ideology, and inherited a functional state, while this lot have nothing in common and are operating in country that has been destroyed.’

Researcher Loulouwa al-Rachid observes that Sunni tribal sheikhs ‘have returned to a status and modus operandi reminiscent of the absentee landowners under the monarchy’. (9) They hover around the government, and stay as far away as possible from their people, whom they see as peasants, and exploit. The tribes have brought back folk traditions revived by Saddam Hussein, and play a central role, through tribal law, in a country where the legal system is an auction. On walls across Iraq, there are posters with the words matloub dam or matloub ashairiyan, meaning that someone is wanted, dead or alive. Iraqis can subscribe to a tribal insurance, paying a monthly fee to a powerful sheikh, which entitles them to ask for his protection if needed – a contemporary practice mobilising tribal networks that has nothing to do with tradition.

Other networks have links to external powers. The US, by training the security apparatus, has developed connections within it. (10) It is able to use them to exert considerable influence, despite its limited means, working with Iraqi units that would be of little use without US air support.

Iran, too, has people on the inside, a generation of militant Islamists who were once in exile in Tehran. The relationship that ensued is so organic it is becoming a problem for the Iranians. An Iranian academic said: ‘Our Iraqi friends have enormous sway here. They speak Persian. They have formed friendships over the years with everyone who counts, to the point where they can get to see the Supreme Leader more easily than our senior politicians. Culturally and politically, they have erased the border between our two countries, and I sometimes wonder if our institutions are basing their decisions on our national interests, or on old comradeship.

The economy is not viable

In this fragmented situation, Iraq faces two major dangers, which can only grow as the threat from ISIS diminishes. First and foremost, the economy is not viable. (11) The fat salaries paid to civil servants have done nothing to stem corruption, but have increased the burden on government finances. Even during the good times, when oil was more than $100 a barrel, the government budget was quickly used up between exorbitant operating costs and plundering of the national wealth.

The financial crisis is becoming a dangerous uncertainty factor: it encourages popular contestation which, though limited at present, could potentially get out of control; it stimulates the economy of violence, the only alternative to conventional sources of income; and it can encourage business rivalries among the elite, fighting for share of a shrinking pool of corruption. Potentially, it also gives real leverage to Iraq’s external partners, especially the US, which mostly controls the international system of financial governance that Baghdad needs to make up its deficit.

The question of the Shia leadership is also increasingly urgent. The Shia, a majority in Iraq, must contend with a litany of challenges: a deep class division (reflected in demonstrations mostly involving Lumpenproletariat youth), disillusionment with the state, the terminal discredit of representatives of Islamism, powerful popular religiosity (see Basra, dystopian city), the growing ambitions of militia leaders, and a gradual weakening of the marjaiya, the traditional religious leadership, which inevitably will reach a climax with the imminent death of Ali al-Sistani, the last Iraq-based ayatollah to combine moderation, nationalism and doctrinal credibility. (12) So it is no surprise that many Iraqis fear the defeat of ISIS; for whose victory will that be?

Originally published in French by Le Monde Diplomatique, August 2016

Illustration credit: Ancient Roman bed decoration depicting war elephant by Museum of Artifacts / licensed by CC.

1 Iraq has 10% of the world’s oil reserves (150bn barrels) and produces on average 2.5m barrels per day. Hydrocarbons generate 95% of external revenues.

2 The March 2003 invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition led to the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. He went into hiding but was captured in December 2003, sentenced to death by an Iraqi court, and hanged in December 2006.

3 Estimates of the number of Iraqis killed since 2003 range from 200,000 to 700,000. In 2013 the scientific journal PLOS Medicine suggested a figure of 500,000 and revealed that the mortality rate in Iraq had risen from 5.5 per thousand in 2002 to 13.2 in 2006. According to the Iraqi media, bombings and sectarian clashes have claimed 10-15,000 lives a year since 2008.

4 In April-May 2016, Shia demonstrators broke into the fortified Green Zone, and stormed the parliament building. Though spectacular, this protest, inspired by imam Moqtada al-Sadr, did not attract wide support.

5 Several cities occupied by ISIS have been retaken at a heavy cost in destruction and lives. Shia militias have also attacked civilians accused of supporting ISIS.

6 In the absence of a census, experts agree that the distribution is 60% Shia and 30% Sunni. The Sunnis, politically dominant from 1932 to 2003, were auxiliaries of the British and Ottoman occupiers.

7 In July 2014 Massoud Barzani, then president of the Kurdish autonomous region (Iraqi Kurdistan), announced a referendum on independence, though without specifying how or when it would be held.

8 Founded in 1947, in Damascus, with two branches, one Syrian, the other Iraqi, the Arab Socialist Baath Party governed Iraq from 1968 to 2003.

9 The Kingdom of Iraq, founded in 1921 and established de facto in 1932, was governed by a Hashemite dynasty, ousted by a coup in 1958.

10 Since the official withdrawal of its armed forces, the US has maintained 3,500 military personnel in Iraq, to train Iraqi troops.

11 The hydrocarbon sector contributes more than 83% of Iraq’s budget revenues, but employs only 1% of the economically active population. Efforts to diversify the economy have been thwarted by 30 years of war and crises, and the cost of reconstruction has been estimated at $400bn.

12 Born in Iran in 1930, Sistani established himself in Najaf in 1961. He is the most highly respected figure in Iraqi Shiism.

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