Politicians have failed to form a new government nearly a year after the last elections. Baghdad just saw its worst militia clashes in years. And despite vast oil wealth, the state can’t provide basic services.
BAGHDAD — On most days in the Iraqi capital, jackhammers and electric drills provide the soundtrack to a construction boom, with multistory restaurants taking shape and a new $800 million central bank building rising above the skyline.
But this apparent prosperity in parts of Baghdad belies what many Iraqi officials and citizens see as the crumbling foundation of the state — an oil-rich Middle Eastern country that the United States had intended to be free and democratic when it led an invasion 19 years ago to topple the dictator Saddam Hussein.
After the invasion, Iraq’s long-sidelined Shiite Muslim majority came to dominate government, and the power struggle between Shiite and Sunni political groups fueled a sectarian war. Now, in a dangerous threat to the country’s already tenuous stability, rival Shiite armed groups, the most powerful among them tied to neighboring Iran, are fighting each other, and are beyond the control of the central government.
“Internally, externally, at the political level and at the security level, Iraq is now a failed state,” said Saad Eskander, an Iraqi historian. “The Iraqi state cannot project its authority over its territory or its people.”
Iraq’s weaknesses once again came into sharp relief last week when a stalemate over forming a new government — almost a year after the last elections — exploded into violence in the heart of the capital.
Followers of the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the heavily guarded Green Zone in an antigovernment protest after Mr. Sadr announced he was withdrawing from politics. Then rival pro-Iranian Shiite paramilitary fighters on the public payroll began shooting at the protesters, and armed members of a Sadr militia emerged to fight them.
Ordered by the prime minister not to shoot at the demonstrators, government security forces were largely sidelined while the rival militias fought it out. After two days of fighting killed 34 people, Mr. Sadr ordered his followers to withdraw from the Green Zone, restoring an uneasy calm.
The violence was rooted in a stalemate over forming a government that has dragged on since the elections in October 2021.
Mr. Sadr’s followers won the largest bloc of seats in Parliament, although that was not enough to form a government without coalition partners. When he failed to put together a ruling coalition, the major Iran-backed parties with paramilitary wings — Shiite political rivals to Mr. Sadr — stepped in and tried to sideline him.
Mr. Sadr then turned to his power on the street rather than at the negotiating table, ordering his followers to set up a protest camp at Parliament — a tactic he has used in the past.
“If we discuss post-2003 Iraq, then we have to say it has never actually been a functioning state,” said Maria Fantappie of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Swiss-based conflict management organization. “We never had a prime minister with total control of the security forces or the borders.”
That Iraq has not collapsed is thanks largely to the country’s immense oil wealth. But most citizens never see the benefit of that wealth, suffering through daily electricity cuts, decrepit schools and a lack of health care or even clean water.
Last month, the country’s respected finance minister, Ali Allawi, resigned with a stark warning that staggering levels of corruption were draining Iraqi resources and posed an existential threat.
“Vast underground networks of senior officials, corrupt businessmen and politicians operate in the shadows to dominate entire sectors of the economy and siphon off literally billions of dollars from the public purse,” Mr. Allawi wrote in his resignation letter to the prime minister. “This vast octopus of corruption and deceit has reached into every sector of the country’s economy and institutions: It must be dismantled at all costs if this country is to survive.”
Mr. Allawi, who also served as finance minister in 2006, said he was shocked when he returned at “how far the machinery of government had deteriorated” under the domination of special interest groups tied to various countries in the region.
“You have the people who fly off to Tehran, fly off to Amman, fly off to Ankara, fly off to the U.A.E., fly off to Qatar,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in June. “Before, they used to fly off to Washington, but they don’t do that anymore.”
The United States, meanwhile, has increasingly disengaged from the Arab world, focusing mainly on containing Iran and fostering normalization with Israel. For years the target of hostility over its occupation of Iraq, the country now appears to be losing relevance as Shiite militias battle it out for primacy.
Iraq sits on the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves, and oil revenues have both fed corruption and propped up the economy.
According to state and local officials, militias and tribal groups siphon off customs revenue from Iraq’s Gulf port of Umm Qasr. Crossings along the 1,000-mile border with Iran are another source of illicit revenue. Iran-backed militias in Iraq control sectors like scrap metal, and they extort payments for protection from businesses.
Government contracts are another major source of corruption.
Iraq’s health ministry, traditionally run by officials loyal to Mr. Sadr, is the monopoly buyer of almost half the medications imported into Iraq and is considered one of the most corrupt ministries, according to Iraqi officials and outside experts.
Three years ago, Ala Alwan, a former World Health Organization official, resigned as health minister, saying he could no longer fight corruption in the ministry or ward off threats.
Mr. Allawi, in the interview in June when he was still finance minister, described a country that had essentially become ungovernable.
“You can’t do anything but manage daily affairs, given that in this country, there’s a crisis every day,” he said.
With the war in Ukraine driving up oil prices state revenue has recently come from oil exports — a lack of diversification that could prove disastrous as the world increasingly turns to alternative energy sources.
But with dysfunctional ministries and a weak central government, there is no real effort to improve public services or life for the one-quarter of the population estimated by the government to live in poverty.
Large parts of the country suffer from shortages of electricity or clean water — a continuing crisis that fueled widespread protests three years ago, leading to the fall of the government.
Few sectors are as blatantly dysfunctional as the country’s once-respected educational system. For almost seven years, thousands of temporary teachers have worked without pay, waiting for a chance to be hired by the education ministry. The ministry has now begun making payments.
Schools are so overcrowded they operate in shifts, offering only half a day of classes to students. Many schools lack running water or enough toilets. Most are lucky if they have fans in the 100-degree heat.
More than half of Iraqi students drop out before high school. In Baghdad and other cities, children who have left school push wooden carts in outdoor markets or hawk bottles of water to drivers in traffic.
“We didn’t receive new textbooks this year,” said Um Zahra, a primary schoolteacher who was doing paperwork at the education ministry this week. “We are trying to use old ones,” she added, saying she did not want to give her full name because she did not have her husband’s permission to speak.
Um Zahra said her own neighborhood in Baghdad, the second biggest city in the Middle East, had not had regular running water since 2014.
There is so little faith in the political system that in Baghdad, voter turnout was about 30 percent in the last elections. Many expect the same corrupt politicians to remain in power thanks to a post-2003 system that ensures key posts for specific religious and ethnic groups.
With neighboring Iran and Turkey both frequently breaching Iraqi sovereignty, the weakness of the Iraqi government and state institutions poses a threat to regional stability — as it did in 2014 when the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of an Islamic State assault that conquered large parts of the country.
Mr. Eskander, the historian, said Iraq’s instability can be traced back to before Saddam was toppled, when it lost control of some of its borders and territory in the Iran-Iraq war. But he said he still had hope that the country would survive.
“A change of leaders — a change of generations — is the only way,” Mr. Eskander said.
Source: New York Times, Sept. 8, 2022