The system of government set up after 2003 has run its course.
Twenty years ago this month, the rule of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein collapsed, ushering in a new era for Iraq, the Middle East, and the world. The war that toppled him remains contentious among Iraqis and Americans. Yet for many Iraqis who suffered under his brutal dictatorship, it was a moment of salvation from the long nightmare of tyranny—a fundamental fact that no critic of the war should forget.
With Saddam gone, Iraq had a rare chance to heal its wounds and forge a new path based on coexistence, security, and prosperity. While Iraq has fallen short of the aspirations that greeted its liberation, it has also made notable strides: a new constitution approved by voters, six democratic transfers of power, and decidedly better economic prospects.
Iraq still struggles with deep-rooted problems that stem from decades of political and governance failures. The scars of dictatorship and sectarian violence have not healed. Political deadlock, constitutional disputes, ethnic and religious tensions, poor governance, and rampant corruption plague the country. Iraqis are still waiting for justice and the benefits they deserve from their liberation.
No surprise, therefore, that Iraqis are growing more disdainful and distrustful of politics. The fact that half of the voters skipped the last elections is a warning sign that should spur serious reflections about the direction of the country. Iraqis—Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, and other communities—are all dissatisfied, as repeated popular protests over the years have underscored.
The current system was partly born out of fear. Shiites were fearful of being dominated by a minority as they were under Saddam, the Kurds were similarly fearful of centralized tyranny, and the Sunnis were mostly absent from the process. Most of all, Iraqis feared a return to the horrors of Iraq before 2003: a brutal dictatorship, sectarian and ethnic discrimination, wars, genocide, and social deprivation. The 2005 post-Saddam constitution, therefore, enshrined federalism and a parliamentary system, ensuring devolution of power and greater representation. These fears—and the system of government that reflected them—led to a structurally weak, constrained state dominated by nonstate actors. This system has run its course. Iraq requires fundamental reforms, a new political vision, a sincere reconciliation between its constituent communities, a historic pact between the state and society, and a commitment to good governance.
As I stated repeatedly during my time as Iraqi president, the country needs a new social and political contract that promotes good government and redefines the relationship between the government and the people. Critically, the 2005 constitution, historic when it was introduced, needs to be amended to reflect the lessons of the past 20 years and hopes for the next 20.
Through dialogue and discussion, Iraqis can find compromises and effective solutions to entrenched disputes. This would allow us to reconsider new governance options that can help wrest politics from the suffocating embrace of patronage and privilege—and bestow the political system with greater popular legitimacy.
For instance, it’s about time we seriously consider changing the current division of power by granting greater executive authority to a new presidency elected directly by the public, along with a strong and effective parliament, including the long-promised Federation Council. An empowered president not beholden to shifting coalitions would be better able to get things done, checked by a bicameral parliament.
Moreover, we need to produce a lasting solution to the thorny issue of federalism, not least to overcome the ongoing dispute between the Kurdistan region and Baghdad that has lingered since the foundation of the Iraqi state. Over the past 20 years, the two sides have missed repeated opportunities to reach a lasting compromise that respects Iraq’s territorial integrity while preserving Kurdish self-rule. Constitutional ambiguity, legal contradictions, and fiscal misrule have fueled a mutual mistrust. Today, there is an even more urgent need to find a way forward that respects the rights and interests of both sides—one that promotes coexistence through full and complete citizenship.
One vision worth pursuing is a new confederation arrangement that resolves outstanding economic, political, and security issues—and which emphasizes the common interests of Kurdistan and Baghdad. The benefits would reach far beyond the Kurds. This arrangement would also make it possible to decentralize power to Iraq’s central and southern provinces by electing provincial governors directly by citizens, thus empowering local governments and making them more accountable.
Rule of law and curbing corruption are prerequisites for meeting such lofty goals. Iraq has become a kleptocracy, where a political oligarchy and its clients are stripping the state bare. The tendrils of corruption run deep, threatening the very fabric of the state, feeding violence, and creating division.
Effective and equal application of the law to all, regardless of their political station, is the first step towards combating this menace. Without it, accountability and good governance will remain pipe dreams. To recover the country’s looted wealth, Iraq needs national legislation and the assistance of its international partners.
Iraq needs to reform its oil-dependent economy, which provides most of the country’s exports and state revenues. To wean Iraqis off the state, the country needs to foster economic diversification and a dynamic private sector and tackle the long-term challenges of climate change.
Iraq has rich natural resources, diverse human capital, and a strategic location. Rather than waste it, Iraq’s oil and gas must fund its development. But it also needs to tap into its other assets to improve its living standards.
To achieve these economic goals, Iraq needs a peaceful foreign policy that steers clear of conflicts, avoids meddling in the affairs of its neighbors, and makes the country a hub for industry and trade. Iraq aspires to be a key player in boosting the fortunes of the entire Middle East.
The U.S.-Iraqi partnership against the Islamic State has not only helped liberate Iraq from the scourge of terrorism, but also ensures the security needed for pursuing the political vision I have outlined. Built on the security relationship, and as outlined in the Iraqi-U.S. Strategic Framework Agreement, Baghdad and Washington should now turn to expanding ties in other policy areas, including the economy and education.
Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani has affirmed in his government program a commitment to economic and constitutional reforms. He must be supported in these endeavors and in the quest to affirm the supremacy of state institutions based on the rule of law.
Iraqis have learned a lot from the past 20 years, but the next 20 are more important. Our goal should be a stable, fully sovereign Iraq that is at peace with itself and its neighbors, a hub for regional economic growth, and a force for stability. Iraqis need to debate this vision in Baghdad—not in Ankara, Tehran, or Washington. Iraq can achieve renewal and hope if we dare to take the chance.
Barham Salih is a former president of Iraq and a former prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Source: Foreign Policy, April 24, 2023