20 Years After U.S. Invasion, Iraq Is a Freer Place, but Not a Hopeful One

20 Years After U.S. Invasion, Iraq Is a Freer Place, but Not a Hopeful One

A couple of streets away from the new buildings and noisy main road of the desert city of Falluja, there was once a sports stadium. The goal posts are long gone, the stands rotted years ago.

Now, every inch is covered with gravestones.

“This is the martyrs’ graveyard,” said Kamil Jassim Mohammed, 70, the cemetery’s custodian, who has looked after it since 2004, when graves were first dug for those killed as U.S. troops battled Iraqi militias. “I stopped counting how many people are buried here, but there are hundreds, thousands of martyrs.”

As Iraq marks the 20th anniversary on Monday of the American-led invasion that toppled the dictator Saddam Hussein, an army of ghosts haunts the living. The dead and the maimed shadow everyone in this country — even those who want to leave the past behind.

The United States invaded Iraq as part of its “war on terror” announced by President George W. Bush after the Al Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Mr. Bush and members of his administration claimed that Mr. Hussein was manufacturing and concealing weapons of mass destruction, though no evidence to back up those accusations was ever found. Some U.S. officials also said Mr. Hussein had links to Al Qaeda, a charge that intelligence agencies later rejected.

Today, Iraq is a very different place, and there are many lenses through which to see it. It is a far freer society than it was under Mr. Hussein and one of the more open countries in the Middle East, with multiple political parties and a largely free press.

Still, conversations with more than 50 Iraqis about the war’s anniversary offered an often troubling portrait of an oil-rich nation that should be doing well but where most people neither feel secure nor see their government as anything but a corruption machine.

Many Iraqis see a bleak economic future, because despite a wealth of natural resources, the country’s energy revenues have been spent primarily on the vast public sector, lost to corruption or wasted on grand projects left unfinished. Relatively little has gone into transforming public infrastructure or providing services, as many Iraqis had hoped.

“The living conditions are not good. The electricity is still bad,” said Mohammed Hassan, a 37-year-old communications engineer and father of three who supervises the laying of internet lines in a middle-class neighborhood in the capital, Baghdad, for which he is paid $620 a month. “I have hardly enough to get to the end of the month, so I cannot see much of a future,” he added.

“It’s a pity. We always wanted to get rid of Saddam,” he said. “We know Iraq is rich, and we hoped it would get better. But we did not get what we were hoping for.”

Iraq remains indelibly scarred by a civil war, an insurgency and the almost constant upheaval that the invasion unleashed, which continued even after U.S. troops pulled out in 2011. Wave after wave of fighting gave way to political strife, and the country never fully stabilized. Two major cities — Mosul and Falluja — have been largely destroyed, and damage is visible in almost every major town throughout central and northern Iraq.

It is hard to find anyone in this country who has not lost someone.

About 200,000 civilians died at the hands of American forces, Al Qaeda militants, Iraqi insurgents or the Islamic State terrorist group, according to Brown University’s Cost of War project. At least 45,000 members of the Iraqi military and police forces and at least 35,000 Iraqi insurgents also lost their lives, and tens of thousands more were left with life-altering injuries.

On the U.S. side, about 4,600 troops and 3,650 American contractors were killed in Iraq, and countless others survived, but bear physical and mental scars.

The Iraqi state’s weakness after the U.S. invasion made it fertile ground for powers in the region and beyond to cultivate their geopolitical ambitions. Among them were neighboring Iran and Turkey, along with the United States itself.

But Iran proved most adept at exploiting the power vacuum left by the removal of Mr. Hussein and at exerting influence inside Iraq for its own goals. Iran spurred the creation of a parallel military force that was long outside of the control of the Iraqi government. These mostly Shiite militias have tens of thousands of fighters, including some who are loyal to Tehran.

Abetting and expanding Iran’s influence in Iraq was hardly the intention of United States policymakers in 2003. Ryan Crocker, a former American ambassador to Iraq who was involved in the planning of the war, said he suggested to U.S. diplomats and military leaders that they might want to reach out to the Iranians.

“I said: ‘Shouldn’t we be figuring out how to talk to the Iranians about this and how to have them minimize their hostile involvement?’” he recalled.

He said his plea fell on deaf ears.

“I saw no evidence whatsoever at any point that anyone was really thinking about the depth and breadth of the Iranian factor,” he added.

Today, Iraq is a far different place from the one the Americans found in 2003.

Roughly half the population of nearly 45 million was born after 2000 and did not experience the strictures and frequent brutality of life under Mr. Hussein, who was captured by U.S. forces in late 2003 and, after an Iraqi trial, executed.

Young Iraqis’ perceptions are shaped by the violence that followed the U.S.-led invasion and, at the same time, by disappointment that their country still falls far short of the hopes raised by a more open society.

“Saddam Hussein was the Hitler of our times. He was the most brutal dictator, tyrant, that we have experienced,” said Barham Salih, Iraq’s president from 2018 to 2022 and a longtime member of the Iraqi opposition who, like many others, saw up close the torture and executions that Mr. Hussein used to keep political opponents in check.

“Once he was gone, suddenly we had elections,” Mr. Salih said. “We had an open polity, a multitude of press. Those things had not been seen in a long, long time in a place like Iraq.”

Such things are certainly rare in the Middle East, where dictators and autocrats rule in most countries and there is widespread repression of media freedoms and individual rights. More recently both have started to come under threat in Iraq as well, largely from Shiite Muslim parties linked to Iran.

“If you put things in context, there have been a lot of positive developments,” Mr. Salih said.

Among those developments is a better relationship with the U.S. military. Its troops returned in 2014, this time at the request of the Iraqi government, and played a vital role in the fight to defeat the Islamic State. About 2,500 U.S. troops remain in the country.

For many Iraqis, it is hard to appreciate the positive developments when unemployment is rampant, with more than one in three young people jobless, according to the World Bank and the International Labor Organization. There are few private-sector jobs, which means that most people seek government positions. But there are not enough of those to go around for Iraq’s fast-growing population.

About a quarter of Iraqis live at or below the poverty line, according to Iraq’s Planning Ministry.

Most troubling for young and old alike, however, is the increasingly entrenched government corruption, which is rooted in a system of sectarian and ethnic distribution of power that the United States pressed Iraq to put into place after Mr. Hussein fell. Transparency International ranks Iraq 157th among 180 countries in its corruption index.

The U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation upended the social order that had existed under the dictatorship by marginalizing the Sunni Muslim sect, which had formed the core of Mr. Hussein’s power base, his military and his intelligence services. That benefited the country’s Shiite Muslim majority and the Kurdish minority.

This backfired, however, by fueling a tenacious Sunni insurgency against the U.S. occupation that began soon after the 2003 invasion. It was led initially by former officers in Mr. Hussein’s military and intelligence services, who were quickly joined by Islamist extremists connected to Al Qaeda.

The conflict soon morphed into a sectarian war, targeting Shiites who, in turn, formed fighting groups of their own. Those groups, rather than dissolving once the fighting stopped — as the Sunni groups did — evolved and expanded over time into the numerous Shiite militias that hold sway today.

The most powerful among these militias have links to Iran. Many Iraqis accuse the militias and Iran of undermining Iraq’s sovereignty and democracy because a number of them function outside Iraq’s military command and because many militias are also linked to political parties, lending a violent edge to politics.

Today, the power-sharing system among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds that was put in place by the Americans is regarded by many as having undermined from the start any hope of good governance. But Mr. Crocker and others said that at the time it seemed the only way to ensure that all sects and ethnicities would have a role in governing.

That U.S.-imposed framework became the basis for the current system of government with competing factions gaining access to power, money and patronage, which they now divide up among the different sects and ethnic groups in Parliament.

“The government now is a coalition of rivals” for government spoils, said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi political analyst and nonresident fellow at the Century Foundation, an American research institute.

He and other experts say that every party has tried to grab as much of the spoils of Iraq’s wealth and power as possible, and that over the years, corruption has become institutionalized to such an extent that it is not just the positions of ministers that are allocated by party; parties also control many lower-level jobs and contracts associated with a ministry and use them to reward supporters or curry political favor.

“It makes it very difficult to run a state, “ Mr. Jiyad said, because no one is accountable. “The people who investigate corruption are political appointees,” he added. “The people who put you on trial are politically connected, and so are the people who arrest you. So, everything is quid pro quo: ‘You leave alone my misdemeanors, and I’ll ignore yours.’”

Only sometimes, the transgressions are far more than misdemeanors.

Last fall, it emerged that $2.5 billion had been stolen from the office of tax revenue and that much of it had been spirited out of the country. While one person was initially named, there are now arrest warrants for 10 people, two of them senior figures in the office of the prime minister at the time, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, said Judge Dhiaa Jaafar, Iraq’s chief anticorruption judge.

Mr. Kadhimi, who is now living outside Iraq, as are several of those named in the arrest warrants, adamantly denies any wrongdoing by anyone in his administration.

The news media dubbed the case the “steal of the century.” But Judge Jaafar said he believed it was just one of several thefts on this scale. The difference is that some of the others lack the paper trail that he has found in the $2.5 billion one.

As Mr. Jiyad put it: “We have stolen people’s futures.”

Most humiliating for many Iraqis is that to get a government job, they either have to know someone in a senior position in a ministry or political party, or they have to pay someone in a party or in the department where they want to work, or both. This system, which in the last few years has become pervasive, has put a price tag on many jobs, according to anticorruption officials and Parliament members.

Zainab Jassim Zayre, a 30-year-old radiology technician who works in a hospital in the sprawling, mostly poor Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad, got her job several years ago, before such payments became routine. But she said students are now being asked to shell out as much as $30,000 for a position like hers, which pays at most $800 a month.

“People suffer from this system — not all people,” she said. “If they are middle class or rich, maybe their families can afford it. But the poor people cannot. This is injustice, and if they borrow, it takes them so long to pay back.”

Injustice is a word that comes up in almost every interview with ordinary Iraqis.

They use it to describe not only the system of paying for jobs, but the difficulty of getting any official document without paying something extra to the person giving it to you; they use it when they describe how some neighborhoods have polluted water — or no water at all. It expresses their sense of outrage at the privilege of a very few Iraqis and the desperation of the many.

Even the most basic demand that people make of government — that it guarantee their day-to -day safety — is not a given everywhere in Iraq. It depends where you live.

In Diyala, a sprawling, largely rural province northeast of Baghdad, sectarian fighting still goes on. Just a week ago, eight people were killed and since January, more than 40 people have died in sectarian killings.

The security threat from the Islamic State may be quiescent now, but is hardly gone, according to senior Iraqi security officials. An analysis by U.S. military commanders in December found that there were “more than 20,000 ISIS leaders and fighters in detention facilities in Iraq,” calling this “an ISIS army in detention.”

In one corner of Falluja’s cemetery lie the 27 members of the Dhahi family who were killed when a U.S. aircraft bombed their house on April 6, 2004, during heavy fighting. One of the smallest graves bears three names, those of three infants who died in the bombing and were buried together.

One family member who survived, Waleed Dhahi, now 23, was found alive in the rubble. His immediate family — both parents, three brothers and a sister — were not so lucky. He lost an eye and has shrapnel deep in his leg.

For him, the United States invasion was a crucible of loss.

“My opinion of the Americans is negative, because if someone comes and kills my family and I don’t have any power to fight them, it leaves a hatred,” he said. “Of course life continues and we must start again. But I lost my family and that has affected me, and sometimes I wish I had died with them.”

Falih Hassan in Baghdad contributed reporting.

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