Iraq: a forgotten state

APJC’s Baghdad eTour Fellow Dean Casey reports the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war for upstart magazine.

Published 18/3/2013

Tomorrow, Iraq reaches yet another conjuncture in its tumultuous history. Ten years ago the coalition of the willing began its long campaign to rid the world of a “regime that developed and used weapons of mass destruction and that harbored and supported terrorists.”

Ultimately it was found the weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist and al-Qaeda did not have a presence in Iraq prior to the 2003 American-led intervention.

Australia’s involvement, resource-wise, was relatively small in proportional terms. Yet, our involvement arguably gave the war something more important — legitimacy. A war, which the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, later declared in 2004, was illegal from the UN Charter point of view.

The numbers of the Iraq War are staggering.

According to Iraq Body Count, it is estimated 162,000 Iraqi citizens, 4,484 US Military and 319 coalition troops were killed — not to mention the countless number of casualties.

The Center for American Progress also estimates there is 1.24 million internally displaced people in Iraq and 1.6 million refugees. These are conservative figures with the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre putting the figure much higher.

Many middle-class Iraqis have also departed the country, which has created a ‘brain drain’ and left a country without a sense of identity.

In a report released by the Middle East Institute, Dr Joseph Sassoon, says, “Iraq has lost the bulk of its educated middle class, which will reduce its chances of having a stable democracy in the long run. Indeed it is ironic that the US came to Iraq with the intent of establishing democracy, only to see the biggest proponent of democracy, the middle class, flee the country, and thereby ceding more control to the religious groups”

Yet with all these troubles, Iraq seems to have fallen off the news agenda.

Donna Mulhearn, a journalist in Iraq, says there has been a dramatic disconnect between the growing internal crisis in Iraq and western media audiences since foreign troops have departed the country.

“There is about 200-300 civilian Iraqis killed every month. Iraq has the highest amount of civilian deaths in the world, which would probably only be matched by Syria at the moment,” Ms Mulhearn said via videolink from Baghdad.

“And yet if this was happening in Afghanistan, this would be reported because we have our troops in Afghanistan and there is that connection.”

The growing internal crisis is the result of conflict between the Islamist Shia government majority and the Sunni minority. Tensions remain high with terrorists/militias continuing to carry out sustained attacks on an almost daily basis.

“One of the unfortunate consequences of the war and the US effort to bring democracy to Iraq was that many key ethno-religious political factions have viewed it as an opportunity to pedal their own relatively narrow and very divisive political rhetoric,” says Dr Benjamin Isakhan, a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation, who has recently returned from Iraq.
Consequently, Dr Isakhan says, “the al-Maliki government has become increasing authoritarian, using every trick in the book to cling to power, undermine and quash Iraqi civil society and introduce a number of draconian measures to curtail the rights and freedoms of Iraqi citizens.”

Ms Mulhearn agrees.

“There is very little freedom of speech or freedom of expression,” she says.

“You mention democracy to them (Iraqis) and their response is quite a big belly laugh. They have an idea of what democracy looks like but they don’t feel it has arrived yet.”

However, perhaps the biggest problem Iraq faces in its quest for democratic reform and a peaceful society is the relationship between the oil and gas sector and the government.

Sudipto Mukerjee, the head of the United Nations Development Program for Economic Recovery and Poverty Alleviation in Iraq, says the relationship between the two is structurally flawed and there is little incentive for the government to remain accountable to the majority of citizens.

“On the one hand, the oil and gas sector does not necessarily produce many jobs,” says Mr Mukerjee.

“On the other hand, because the government is not dependant on its citizens for its revenue, the relationship between the state and its citizens is quite weak.”

Mr Mukerjee says that for the Iraqi state to strengthen and become much more accountable to its citizens, it needs to diversify its economy and encourage other private sector growth.
Corruption is also a problem.

A 2011 report by the International Crisis Group finds spreading corruption threatens to undermine the significant progress Iraq has made towards reducing violence and strengthening state institutions.

The report found that between 2005 and 2007, “111 electricity ministry officials were convicted of various corruption related offenses for sums totalling $250 million … (and) 319 defence ministry officials were convicted of crimes involving sums totalling more than $1 billion.”

The report also finds ministries with security-related portfolios are considered the worst offenders and corruption has spread to the judicial sector and provincial governments.

To put these factors into perspective, Iraq is considered a middle-income country with a GDP that has growing substantially in recent years to an estimated $115.4 billion, much of it coming from its natural resources. Yet most of these profits do not filter down to ordinary people.

In the 2011 progress report from the Centre for Global Development on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Iraq was ranked as the worst performing middle-income country of all eight of the MDGs.

Considering these damning statistics, perhaps it’s time for Australia, as a key supporter of the intervention, to review its obligations to Iraq.

With the UN finding the war to be illegal according to its own charter, it appears we owe it to the Iraqi people — and to ourselves — to reveal the full extent of why Australia participated in the intervention and to draw out what lessons can be learned for the future.

Dean Casey is a Master of Global Communications and International Business student at La Trobe University and former editor of upstart. You can follow him on Twitter: @deancasey

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