The US Invasion Was a Catastrophe for the People of Iraq

Dina Rizk Khoury

The US promised to bring freedom to Iraqis, but its eight-year occupation resulted in death and destruction on a horrifying scale. It left behind a corrupt, sectarian political order that has responded to popular protests with brutal repression.

An Iraqi woman runs after her daughter as they arrive on the helipad at the Balad Hospital after their house was hit by mortars, injuring both of her daughters. Balad, Iraq, 2004. (Lynsey Addario / Getty Images Reportage)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

In March 2003, the US military launched a full-scale invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration promised to bring freedom to millions of Iraqis. In reality, the occupation inflamed sectarian divisions and reopened Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers at Abu Ghraib, while US officials tried to privatize Iraq’s vast oil resources.

Eight years later, US forces officially withdrew from Iraq after hundreds of thousands of people had been killed. They left behind a corrupt and authoritarian political system that was soon unable to cope with the rise of ISIS. A protest movement has developed in the past few years to challenge the ruling class in Baghdad. But the legacy of the occupation will be haunting Iraq for decades.

Dina Rizk Khoury is professor emerita of history at George Washington University and the author of Iraq During Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Remembrance. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the two-part interview here and here.

Impacts of an Invasion

Daniel Finn

What was the balance sheet in terms of death, injury, and material destruction from the period of direct US occupation in Iraq?

Dina Rizk Khoury

The invasion and occupation of Iraq after 2003 was devastating in many ways. But it’s important to keep in mind that the US war on Iraq goes back a long time before that. It really started in 1991. The impact of the 2003 invasion was made all the worse because the embargo that was imposed by the United Nations and supported by the United States after 1991 had already weakened the infrastructure of Iraq, particularly when it came to health and education.

Between 2003 and 2011, which was the official date for the withdrawal of American troops, the tally on the American side was 4,500 US soldiers killed. On the Iraqi side, there were 650,000 deaths, according to the reliable statistics that we have from the New England Journal of Medicine. The US fight against ISIS from 2013 also led to the death of 40,000 Iraqis. These are documented figures.

In addition, there are five million Iraqi refugees. Some fled to Syria and Jordan in the wake of the sectarian civil war, but a large number were internally displaced, moving from areas that had seen a high level of violence to more peaceful districts. We also know that the occupation of large parts of Iraq by ISIS and the subsequent war on ISIS also created over a million internal refugees.

Another social cost of the war that is not spoken about very often is the stress on family structures. There are currently two million households in Iraq that are led by women as well as countless orphans. This has taken its toll on the ability of Iraqis to rebuild their social lives.

We also need to discuss the material and environmental destruction that came with the occupation. The early months of the occupation led to widespread looting, particularly of Iraq’s cultural heritage. You have to think of Iraq as a territory that is virtually one big archeological site. It is one of the world’s most ancient civilizations.

Before the invasion, the Pentagon and the State Department seem to have acknowledged the importance of taking care of that heritage. The bombing and fighting during the invasion did not take place in the vicinity of archeological and cultural sites, so the US forces knew this was something they had to bear in mind. However, the warning went unheeded in the first months of the occupation.

During that period, the Iraqi national museum and the national library were looted. About 170,000 artefacts were taken from the museum and about a million books and manuscripts were looted or burned. US forces also took the archives of the Ba’ath Party and various government ministries out of Iraq.

The archaeological sites suffered as well. For example, the occupation forces built military bases on the ancient ruins of Babylon and Ur, and a helicopter launchpad damaged the theater of the Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar. When ISIS emerged, of course, there was more destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage in the areas it controlled. The trade in smuggled antiquities filled the coffers of ISIS.

When it comes to the environment, we are beginning scientific studies about the impact of military ordinance on public health. Iraq has effectively been at war since the 1980s. During the 1980s, when Iraq invaded Iran, there was extensive use of chemical and biological weapons on both sides. The 1991 Gulf War left a lot of depleted uranium in the soil, and UN agencies recorded an increase in the number of cancer patients as a result. Iraq is a space where the United States has experimented with weapons systems since the 1990s, resulting in a great deal of environmental degradation.

Daniel Finn

What was the nature of the political system that was put in place under US domination after 2003?

Dina Rizk Khoury

The United States came into Iraq with two stated purposes. The first was to overthrow Saddam’s dictatorship and set up a democratic system. The second was to establish a free-market economy unregulated by the government, in which foreign companies as well as companies built by the Iraqi diaspora would have the lion’s share in the task of reconstruction and developing Iraq’s oil reserves. There was a deeply entrenched view after the Cold War that held that liberal democracies only flourish when you have free markets and the state sector of the economy is dismantled.

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the administrative body set up by the United States to govern Iraq in the first year of the occupation, proceeded to implement a series of measures that were meant to eradicate all the remnants of the institutions that had formerly governed the country. A number of observers have described this as a process of state-building in reverse.

The CPA disbanded the Iraqi army and devolved the security and military functions of the state to an amalgam of US military forces, foreign contractors, and private militias aligned to political parties that were empowered by the occupation. There was an attempt to “de-Ba’athify” all state institutions, which meant political and economic disenfranchisement and criminalization for tens of thousands of people who were primarily Sunni. This fueled the insurgency and a sectarian civil war, particularly in the Arab regions of Iraq.

Iraq was a one-party state until the Americans occupied it. It was necessary to be a member of the Ba’ath Party if you wanted to work in state institutions, go to university, or be part of the military, even if you weren’t an active member of the party or didn’t belong to its upper echelons. This “de-Ba’athification” process thus affected a large part of the population.

In place of the Ba’ath, the United States set up an interim government that was supposed to be a constitutional democracy. However, Washington envisaged a different kind of constitutional democracy than we would be familiar with in Western Europe or the United States itself, for example.

The United States and its Iraqi allies saw Iraq as being divided along ethnic, tribal, and sectarian lines. In such a divided country, where the divisions were supposedly entrenched in culture rather than along economic and social lines, the only democratic system that could work would be one that gave proportional representation to the communities in a parliamentary system.

US policy makers and their overseas Iraqi supporters saw the Ba’ath regime as being dominated by the Sunni minority. To reset the balance and make sure that all communities had representation, they believed, it was necessary to divide power along communal and ethnic lines. The constitution that was ratified in 2005 set up a confessional system of representation in which parliamentary seats, the executive branch, and the resources of the state were divided up between political parties organized around sectarian and ethnic agendas. This was known as the muhasasa system.

Under this system, the president of the republic would be Kurdish, the prime minister would be Shia, and the parliamentary speaker would be Sunni. It was very similar in its construction to the much older Lebanese system of democratic politics. However, this was totally new to Iraq — there was no history of it — whereas the Lebanese system had antecedents in the nineteenth century and was reinscribed under the French colonial mandate during the interwar period.

In its crudest iteration, this system furnished the scaffolding of a political and economic bargain among Iraq’s post-invasion political class to divide up the state’s ministries and institutions and privatize its resources according to ethno-sectarian quotas. The main beneficiaries have been the Shia blocs, which remain in power up to the present, with Sunni parties as their junior partners. The Kurdish parties have control in the areas ruled by the Kurdish Regional Government.

While these elites may have a fractious relationship with one another in their continuous bargaining for a greater share of the pie, they constitute a new political class with economic interests and a common style of governance. They build power by offering patronage to supporters who become their clients. They appoint people to positions in the various ministries under their control. This is their main way of winning support.

The funding for this patronage comes from state resources. Instead of being invested in the economy, these resources are used to buy clients. By 2011, when the US forces left, most state institutions had become arenas of competition between these highly militarized political parties. Corruption is built into the system at the expense of rebuilding the country and developing its economy for the benefit of Iraqi citizens.

Daniel Finn

How was Iraq’s political economy — its oil sector in particular — transformed during the occupation?

Dina Rizk Khoury

The United States went into Iraq with the aim of imposing a friendly client regime. A large part of its interest in doing so was to develop Iraq’s oil resources. The country has the world’s fifth-largest oil reserves. The United States and its allies were interested in opening up the development of Iraqi oil to American and European companies.

During the 1990s, Iraq had functioned under a crippling sanctions regime in which it could only produce enough oil to feed its own population. It couldn’t sell its own oil either — it had to go through an international body set up by the UN that monitored the sanctions regime. Its infrastructure had become debilitated, so there was a lot of work to be done. The Americans and the Iraqi elite who came in with the occupation thought this was a perfect opportunity to begin privatizing the production and marketing of oil.

The Iraqi oil industry, which accounted for 85 percent of state revenues, had been nationalized in 1972. There were several attempts after 2003 to pass a new oil and gas law that would privatize it. A law to that effect was introduced in parliament in 2006 and 2008. It faced great opposition from Iraqi parliamentarians who said that oil was the patrimony of the Iraqi state. It was also opposed by labor unions in the oil industry and by political parties like the Sadrists.

In response, the government devised a way of getting around this opposition. It said that Iraqi oil would remain a national resource under the purview of the oil ministry, but that foreign companies would be granted what were known as technical service contracts to develop the oil fields. In return, they would receive either a share of the profits or a set fee per barrel of oil produced. As a result, the Iraqi state lost control of the production of oil.

By 2009, all new oil and gas development was allocated to international oil companies in production-sharing agreements. These companies had the right to manage the oil fields with very little oversight by the Iraqi government. The workers in the oil sector had previously been employees of the Iraqi state, but they now found themselves employed by these foreign oil companies and their subcontractors. The oil workers’ unions objected to this and tried to stop it.

The privatization of Iraq’s energy resources proved very lucrative for the international oil companies, particularly the subcontractors in construction, security, and the transport of oil. These subcontractors also included Iraqi businessmen and political figures who were in partnership with the oil companies, especially in shipping and marketing. By 2013, oil production in Iraq still hadn’t matched its levels before 2003, in part because of the overcharging and corruption that came with the new production and drilling contracts.

When we think about the political economy of oil, it’s important to look at who benefits from the new arrangements, apart from the companies involved in the oil-production agreements, of course. The main parties and militias draw their funds from control of the marketing, transport, and smuggling of oil. There is an entrenched political system that has the primary resource of oil at its disposal. It can enrich itself at the expense of the state coffers or investment in more sustainable economic activities like industry and agriculture.

Political, security, and business entrepreneurs have amassed vast wealth and influence from the new political economy of oil. It’s difficult to exaggerate the negative consequences of this misuse of public resources for working Iraqis who are not part of this elite. The system of power that was set up after the US invasion is dependent on the distribution of wealth through clientelism and the sale of public offices.

The official unemployment rate in Iraq today is 16 percent. Among the youth, it’s much higher — 36 percent. Most Iraqis work in the informal sector. They have no protection, job security, or social benefits because the state is bankrupt. This precarious class includes people from various social backgrounds: university students, health professionals, teachers, and so on. It supplies the fuel for massive protests against the Iraqi political system that continue to erupt in the country.

Violence and Political Fallout

Daniel Finn

You’ve touched on this already when talking about the nature of the Iraqi political system, but could you tell us a little more about the main political forces that were competing for power in Baghdad after the US withdrawal?

Dina Rizk Khoury

The first and most important Shia bloc is the Dawa Party of Nouri al-Maliki, who was prime minister between 2006 and 2014. The second is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which has more followers in the southern parts of the country. These two parties were based in exile in Iran during the period of Ba’athist rule before they came to power after 2003.

Both parties had pro-Iranian agendas. They saw Iran as their protector and saw themselves as the protectors of Iranian interests, although the Supreme Council’s offshoot, the Hikmah movement of Ammar al-Hakim, is now trying to distance itself from Iran.

The other strong political force is the Sadrist movement, which is led by a charismatic figure, Muqtada al-Sadr, the descendant of a venerable family of Shia clerics, many of whom suffered at the hands of the Ba’ath. Muqtada al-Sadr sees and projects himself as a nationalist. He regularly mentions the fact that the Sadrs never left Iraq and are not allied to Iran — although he is very cautious in his relations with Iran at the same time.

He is a populist who appeals to the disenfranchised population. There are Sadrist strongholds in Baghdad’s popular quarters and in the south. The Sadrist militia, the Mahdi Army, fought against the US occupation and played a central role in the sectarian war, particularly in Baghdad.

Al-Sadr has navigated the politics of Iraq masterfully. He has managed to remain part of every government coalition while also presenting himself as an honest alternative to the corrupt Shia parties. At various times, he has expressed his agreement with the protesters challenging the corruption of the system. He has extricated himself quite cleverly from his militia background and continues to present himself as a populist, a nationalist, and a protector of the poor.

There are other secular parties such as the Communists and others connected with the Iraqi diaspora figures who returned after 2003. However, they have always played a minor role and are in effect junior partners of the main Shia parties. You also have the Sunni parties, who had become marginalized in the political system by 2011.

A number of Sunni political groups decided to run for parliament and take part in the system as junior partners. But they were discredited in the eyes of most Sunnis because they could not persuade the Shia parties to deliver resources to Sunni-dominated areas. This was what fueled the al-Qaeda insurgency in those areas in 2007–08.

That led in turn to the so-called Sunni Awakening, an alliance of tribal leaders supported by the United States to fight against al-Qaeda. By 2011, al-Qaeda had been defeated and its remnants were scattered elsewhere. Yet Anbar and Fallujah remained quite neglected.

The Kurdish parties dominated the regional government, particularly the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by the Barzani family, which was based in Erbil, and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, based in Sulaymaniyah. These parties controlled the government in the Kurdish areas and had their own militia. The federal army has no presence there.

Daniel Finn

What factors lay behind the sudden collapse of the Iraqi state and army in the areas where ISIS took control?

Dina Rizk Khoury

The rise of ISIS may have seemed quite sudden to outside observers, but there was a history behind it. The areas where ISIS took control were marginal and neglected by the Iraqi state. The inability of the central government to deal with Sunni demands in Fallujah and Anbar province in 2012–13 led a number of young people to travel to Syria and join ISIS because they did not think there was any hope of getting assistance from Baghdad. There had been well-organized protests in those areas that were violently suppressed by the Maliki government.

In addition, ISIS arose in a particular national and regional context. There was a pro-Iranian government in Iraq that was openly sectarian and corrupt and a murderous government in Syria that was also supported by Iran. This led to a radicalization of the Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria that was supported by Turkey and some Gulf States.

The Maliki government had also used its control of the interior and defense ministries to fill the ranks of the army and the security services with supporters who had very little training and operated with an openly sectarian agenda. Those forces in Mosul were unequipped to deal with the rise of ISIS — they just turned and fled when ISIS came.

Daniel Finn

How did Iraqi state managers and their allies respond to the challenge from ISIS in both political and military terms? How would you characterize the long-term consequences of that response for Iraq?

Dina Rizk Khoury

The takeover of Mosul by ISIS came as a surprise to the Maliki government. The rapid disintegration of any government presence in the north generated panic among the Shia population as well as the government. They were saying to each other that there was going to be a massacre of the Shia by the Sunnis, harking back to the early history of Islam. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the premier religious authority among the Shia, issued a call from the holy city of Najaf urging all Shias to take up arms and fight against ISIS.

This call led to the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces by the Iraqi government. This was a state-sponsored umbrella organization composed of several armed factions. While the majority of those factions were Shia, they also included Sunni Muslims from Anbar province and Christians, as well as Yazidi groups.

The Popular Mobilization Forces were mobilized to fight against ISIS in the north, along with a counterinsurgency unit trained by the United States, certain sectors of the Iraqi army, and the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdish Regional Government. Between 2014 and 2016, this coalition of forces waged war against ISIS and ultimately defeated the movement. There was a massive deployment of air power, with about eleven thousand air strikes launched against ISIS, particularly in the Mosul area.

The US and Iraqi governments saw ISIS primarily as a military problem. The political conditions that allowed ISIS to take power were not discussed at all. They simply declared that ISIS was an evil force and people who supported it were evil. The only solution required to get rid of ISIS from this perspective was a military one. There was very little attempt to deal with the factors behind the support for ISIS.

Because of that, the post-ISIS landscape in Iraq has not been very promising. It resulted in further militarization of Iraqi society and politics. The Popular Mobilization Forces are still powerful players in Iraqi politics. They have become a political bloc that can protect its own interests and that plays an important role in managing the areas that were retaken from ISIS.

The Iraqi state has never had a monopoly of violence, as most states do. It is an amalgam of political groups that wield power through their militias. The Popular Mobilization Forces have now become part of the political scene. The Iraqi government continues to see a military response as the only way to deal with potential threats to its legitimacy.

Another result was the strengthening of the Kurdish territorial reach in areas beyond the Regional Government’s undisputed territories. These were areas that the Kurdish Peshmerga helped win back from ISIS and that the Kurds were not willing to give up easily afterward. They have claimed that the Yazidis and other minorities who inhabit these areas are actually Kurdish and therefore should be part of the Regional Government’s jurisdiction. This has compounded the fragmentation of Iraq’s territorial space into cantons controlled by parties.

There has been no serious effort at reconstructing the areas devastated by the war against ISIS. There was a conference in Kuwait where pledges were made to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for reconstruction, but this has not materialized. Those areas are now worse off than they were before ISIS came to power.

About a million people have been internally displaced. This includes people whose families were accused of collaborating with ISIS and who fear retribution if they go back. The Iraqi government is not doing anything to reassure them.

Protest and the Future of Iraq

Daniel Finn

What was the nature of the protest movement that emerged in 2019? What features did it have in common with the protests that were unfolding more or less simultaneously in countries like Algeria, Sudan, or Lebanon?

Dina Rizk Khoury

Let me begin by answering the second part of your question about the common features of these protest movements. They were all dominated by young people from a generation who feel abandoned by their governments. Their basic rights to education, health care, and employment have been completely eroded, in part because of the push for privatization and liberalization of the region’s economies and the dismantling of state services.

These young people were largely nonideological in the sense that they didn’t belong to political parties with clear ideological agendas. Their agenda was primarily for basic human rights. They understood those rights to include social rights as well as political rights in the liberal sense of the term.

They also shared a common repertoire of protest, as social scientists call it. That involved the occupation of public squares — retaking the spaces of the city for organizing protests. They picked up certain slogans and images from elsewhere. For example, the 2019 Iraqi protests borrowed the face of the Joker from protesters in Chile. This was a very savvy group of young people organizing through social media to get around the repressive apparatus of the state.

What distinguished the Iraqi case is the particular context in which those protests emerged. There was a generation of Iraqis who were raised under the late Ba’ath regime and then the US occupation and the system it established. They rejected the claim of political parties organized around sectarian agendas to represent them and demanded a new order that would embrace all Iraqis.

In that sense, they differed from the other protesters because they were trying to create a sense of civic engagement and Iraqi nationhood. This was a challenge that protest movements elsewhere didn’t have to grapple with — apart from in Lebanon, where there was also a challenge to political parties based on sectarianism.

The protests in Iraq also arose from a complete failure of the state. The Iraqi government was experiencing a clear crisis of legitimacy. We already saw the beginning of organized protests in 2015, while the fight against ISIS was in progress. Even though ISIS posed an existential threat to Iraqi Shias because of its sectarian agenda, the protesters were still ready to challenge the corruption of the political order at that time.

By 2019, the protests were drawing in wider sections of the population. The 2015 demonstrations had been concentrated in southern areas like Basra, but they now spread to cities all over southern and central Iraq from October 2019. The protesters were mainly Shia, although Christian and Sunni Iraqis also expressed their support.

Civil society groups such as the women’s movement and labor unions had been growing in Iraq during the 2010s. The Iraqi Communist Party assisted in the organization of unions, and they also received support from international labor organizations in trying to revive what had once been a fairly strong union movement before the Ba’ath took power. There were unions of students and professional groups such as teachers as well.

These civil society organizations joined the protests and helped sustain them. For example, doctors would go to the tents that were set up in Tahrir Square to help. Unions would establish their own tents to support the protestors. The protests expanded beyond the youth to incorporate a wider cross section of the Iraqi population.

Daniel Finn

How did the Iraqi government respond to the protests and the crisis of legitimacy that you alluded to?

Dina Rizk Khoury

The scale of the protests alerted the government to the serious problem it was facing. Its response was violent: in the first six months, six hundred Iraqis were killed by the state forces, and about twenty thousand were injured. But the government then had to curtail the violence.

This was partly because the protesters had the protection of the Sadrist movement, at least until January 2020. Muqtada al-Sadr played his usual mediating role, telling the government that the protesters had legitimate demands and that his movement was going to protect them. He sent his followers onto the streets to protect the demonstrators against the violence of the state. In doing so, he also expanded the size of the protests, since he has a large following.

Al-Sadr changed his position after the US military killed the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Suleimani, and the leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, at the beginning of January 2020. The Sadrists then withdrew their support, saying that they did not want to weaken the government and accusing the protesters of being funded by the United States.

Eventually there was a less violent response that involved trying to co-opt the protests by promising more public sector jobs. When the protesters articulated a clear political agenda, demanding the government’s resignation and calling for fresh elections under a new electoral law, the government promised to respond.

Daniel Finn

What was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the political situation in Iraq? Was it possible to maintain any form of effective social mobilization?

Dina Rizk Khoury

The pandemic played a critical role in limiting the ability of Iraqis to mobilize. It wasn’t the main reason why the protests petered out, but it certainly discouraged people from taking to the streets for what might be super-spreader events. The failure of the government to respond in the way that it should have to the pandemic then left Iraqis in a position where they had to fend for themselves throughout the crisis.

Daniel Finn

What potential would you say exists today for the kind of political action that could establish a more democratic and egalitarian system in Iraq?

Dina Rizk Khoury

It is very difficult to radically transform the current political system in Iraq. The most that we can hope for is reform within the system itself. That means elections that are more inclusive of the different political forces, as well as the independent secular parties that have been organized in the wake of the protests.

In October 2021, there were elections held on the basis of a reformed electoral law. It was now possible to vote for individual candidates, whereas under the previous system, your vote would only count if you voted for a party that belonged to one of the blocs. For the first time, we saw people running for election as independents outside of the parties.

In that election, one section of the protest movement decided that the only way to bring about change was to participate in the system, while others insisted that change could only come through revolution and the overthrow of the system. There was a relatively small group of independents elected who were aligned with the protest movement, and the Sadrist party won the largest number of seats. As I discussed previously, the Sadrists have been able to navigate in the space between government and popular politics in a way that has allowed them to survive and flourish.

There are a number of potential pitfalls within the field of electoral politics. The newcomers who were elected as independents have no experience and have to learn how to operate as a united front, while the Sadrists are unstable allies for those seeking to bring about change.

After their election victory, the Sadrists tried to form a majority coalition with Sunni and Kurdish forces that could take up some of the demands of the protesters for reform. But these efforts at coalition-building fell apart. In June 2022, they withdrew completely from the government, which left the door open for traditional Shia parties to come in for business as usual.

However, business as usual is not viable in the long run. The Iraqi state is more or less bankrupt, and the International Monetary Fund is demanding further privatizations. The established parties have built their political strength on their ability to dispense government appointments, but they can no longer carry on doing so.

In the current situation, change will have to be incremental. All of these parties are militarized, and violent confrontations between the different Shia parties would compound the fragmentation of Iraq. There is no revolutionary option for the protesters: they are going to have to work within the system as it currently exists, with regular protests around certain issues and perhaps also changes of government.