Unfinished Business: Nation-Building in Iraq Since 2003

Nothing so perfectly expresses the failure of nation-building in Iraq as the cry of protesters in 2019, when they chanted, nureed watan, “we want a country.” Twenty years after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq is still struggling with the process of establishing a responsible and sovereign state that serves and protects its citizens, as well as a commonwealth and civic institutions that trust the state and that are bonded by a shared patrimony and a common purpose. It is worth remembering that Saddam Hussein’s regime had already subverted both state and society.

Before the American invasion in 2003, decades of dictatorship, repression, and sanctions had together undermined the state and the social ties of civic life. State institutions were run by intimidation and society was atomized by state violence and fear. By 2003, government institutions were already hobbled, graft was widespread, and repeated wars and sanctions had eroded the ability of the state to provide basic services and had created rifts within society. A process of healing and nation-building was therefore badly needed after 2003, but no such process has taken place.

Compounded Mistakes

The administration of George W. Bush was undecided as to whether the US should engage in nation-building in Iraq, mired as it was in the confusion of conflicting opinions in Washington. The result was a series of grave mistakes by US occupation authorities, which have been amply documented in literature on the war. But whatever the errors the US made, the project to build a democratic state for all of Iraq’s citizens needed to be an Iraqi, and not a foreign responsibility. Yet the initial damaging policies that the US implemented were exploited and amplified by the largely expatriate Iraqis who assumed power after 2003. Twenty years on, the project of building an Iraqi nation, with its many requirements and implications, is still falling far short of success.

The initial damaging policies that the US implemented were exploited and amplified by the largely expatriate Iraqis who assumed power after 2003.

The war of 2003 demolished an old order and established a new state. The Iraqis who were installed in power by the Americans shortly after were drawn largely from the country’s Shia religious parties and the two largest Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The two groupings, which had long been oppressed by the Hussein regime, were the principal opposition interlocuters for the US administration prior to 2003. The Sunnis, meanwhile, were marginal in the pre-2003 period, as well as after the fall of Hussein’s Baathist regime.

Indeed, the two most controversial pillars of policy after 2003, de-Baathification and the dissolution of the Iraqi Army, Orders Number 1 and 2 of the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), were driven as much by the Iraqi opposition groups that gained power after 2003 as by the United States’ post-war planning. The so-called Governing Council that was appointed by the CPA in the summer of 2003 was designed on ethno-sectarian lines, and was likewise dominated by Iraq’s former opposition groups, with 13 Shia members, five Kurds, five Sunnis, and two members from minority groups. The Shia and the Kurds had formed a strategic alliance and therefore controlled relations with the CPA and influenced decision-making. The combination of de-Baathification, the dissolution of the army, and the ethno-sectarian foundations of the new order hollowed out state institutions that were vital to the provision of services and security, deepened existing schisms within society, and set the stage, not for nation-building but for state-capture and insurgency.

The Ethno-Sectarian Foundation of the New State

De-Baathification in Iraq was done wholesale. Rather than merely removing senior Baathists and “culling” the ranks of the civil service, it stripped tens of thousands of state employees of their jobs and their civil rights, leading to the paralysis of national institutions. The Ministry of Education, which was deemed key to spreading Baathist ideology, lost thousands of employees, including teachers. The ministry ground to a halt, and a few fired employees had to be hired back on. A similar pattern followed throughout the government. A new elite of inexperienced expatriate returnees filled mid-level and senior offices as nepotism and patronage replaced skill and experience. The years 2003 and 2004 saw an exodus of civil servants and professionals from Iraq, robbing the country of important capabilities that could have contributed to rebuilding institutions. The dissolution of the security and intelligence services led to a catastrophic collapse of law and order and to rampant crime, from petty looting to assassinations. Iraqi Army arsenals were stripped, and weapons flooded into all parts of the country. Militias from all of the country’s sects controlled the streets. Discharged security personnel formed an armed and angry population that unleashed an insurgency in summer 2003, just months after the American invasion and the fall of the regime. Both de-Baathification and the dissolution of the army disproportionately affected Sunnis, and appeared to inflict vengeance on this previously dominant elite.

Both de-Baathification and the dissolution of the army disproportionately affected Sunnis, and appeared to inflict vengeance on this dominant elite.

The Iraqi Constitution that came into effect in 2005 presents a view of Iraq not as a single nation with common values and aspirations but as a collection of aggrieved communities driven by a fear of the past and by conflicting aims for the future. The preamble to the constitution presents a long list of past injustices and crimes suffered by the Shia and the Kurds, and invokes imams and other religious leaders as spiritual inspiration. Although the preamble and other parts of the constitution refer to the equality of all citizens, the Sunnis were hardly represented during the document’s drafting. Secular civic organizations, such as professional associations and unions that represented a cross section of society, likewise were not consulted, even though they could have provided a more inclusive vision for Iraq’s future. By projecting an image of Iraqi society as a collection of “components,” the constitution managed to deepen the divisions among Iraqis and to elevate group interests above the state. It thus created a state that was less than the sum of its parts.

The consociational political system established in Iraq after 2003, which in Arabic is called muhasasa, and which emulates the Lebanese model, was in theory designed to avoid exclusion and to give all social groups a voice in governance. In practice, consociationalism turned into a system of dividing the spoils of an oil-rich country, a system that has undermined the Iraqi state. Ministries and other state agencies became sinecures for political parties that often answered to foreign governments rather than to the state they allegedly served. The Iraqi armed forces were not immune to muhasasa, and were enfeebled by political clientelism. State revenues were plundered and corruption infested the system, both enriching and tightening the grip of ethno-sectarian parties, while populist rhetoric and fear-mongering further perpetuated their power. The closed system barred reformists and nascent political parties, and also thwarted accountability. Far from seeking reconciliation or healing, the actions and rhetoric of the new rulers deepened suspicions within an already divided society. Draconian punishment of the Sunnis provided fertile soil for the emergence of militant opposition, and later for the rise of terrorist groups.

National Identity and Nation-Building

Even worse than de-Baathification, the ethno-sectarian foundation of the new state caused deep and long-lasting fissures, making it impossible to contemplate a “whole nation” approach based on inclusive democracy. The country’s Shia religious parties claimed supremacy by equating their sectarian numerical majority with democracy. For the Kurds, democracy was any system that gave them the greatest degree of autonomy from Baghdad. This was a bargain struck between the two groups in a strategic partnership stretching as far back as the 1990s. The Sunnis were minor players with no leverage.

The Shia and the Kurds sought to redress past grievances and to compensate for oppression they experienced at the hands of the Saddam Hussein regime. But their actions were essentially retribution against Sunnis, who were stigmatized as Baathist sympathizers, and later as potential terrorists. Identity politics became, and to this day continues to be the coin of Iraqi political groups, all of which present competing narratives of victimhood and entitlement. This deliberate segmentation of society for narrow political gain has undermined any prospect for building a unified nation with equal citizenship and justice for all. Iraqi national identity, which had already been fractured by the repression of the Baathist regime, eroded further as people sought refuge in tribe, sect, or regional affiliation.

The ethno-sectarian foundation of the new state caused deep and long-lasting fissures, making it impossible to contemplate a “whole nation” approach.

Successive governments promised the reform of state institutions, fairer elections, an end to corruption, and protection from abuse and injustice. But none of these promises materialized. Vested interests, the looting of state resources, a lack of accountability, and human rights abuses inflicted with impunity by rogue armed elements thwarted any prospect for reform. As discontent accumulated and spread, the public lost trust in a political order that repeatedly failed to deliver on the essential responsibilities of the state. Voter turnout declined with each successive election, from nearly 70 percent in 2005 to only 41 percent in 2021.

The rapid spread of the so-called Islamic State (IS) across Iraq in 2014 inflamed public opinion against a dysfunctional and careless state; but the war against the terrorist organization momentarily united the country against a common enemy whose crimes did not distinguish between Sunnis, Kurds, or Shia. The fight gave Sunnis greater weight in the state, and temporarily set aside the differences between the federal center and the regional Kurdish government. But while the fight against IS helped to rebuild the Iraqi armed forces, it also reinforced the power of sectarian armed militias that are not accountable to the state, that intimidate the population, and that offer increased opportunities for plunder and patronage. Once IS was defeated in 2017, the short-lived national solidarity that it had once inspired quickly dissipated.

A bright but brief moment of hope then arose in 2019, when hundreds of thousands of young Iraqis held extended protests against the prevailing order.

A bright but brief moment of hope then arose between October and December 2019, when hundreds of thousands of mostly young Iraqis from Baghdad and the Shia south held extended protests against the prevailing order. They initially came together to demand better services and jobs, but their protest quickly acquired a political rhetoric. They condemned the muhasasa system, railed against corruption, rejected both Iranian and American intervention in Iraq’s affairs, and denounced the entire political class. Their universal cry was nureed watan, “we want a country.” The word watan encompasses ideas of homeland, nation, and country, and implies a sense of belonging, pride, and allegiance. The absence of a watan indicates loss, rootlessness, and alienation.

It is no accident that this was a predominantly Shia uprising, since the new political order is dominated by Shia parties that claim to fulfill Shia aspirations, but that in reality have let their own constituency down. The poorest governorate in Iraq, for example, is Muthanna in the Shia-predominant south; and three other southern governorates are at the bottom of the poverty scale. Hundreds of protesters lost their lives in 2019, while thousands were maimed and many others were abducted and have yet to resurface. The cost was high, but the legacy of the protests endures in a broader, heightened awareness among Iraqis of the failures of the political system and the dysfunction of the state.

Is An Inclusive Democracy Possible?

Problems that have undermined Iraq’s nation-building project since 2003 remain unresolved twenty years later. Iraq is still a collection of “components” rather than a cohesive society with shared values and a common goal. Still missing is a national narrative that can reinforce identity and invigorate a healthy commonwealth. Muhasasa subverts democracy by benefiting only a small clique of political parties while shutting out the majority of citizens. In fact, Iraqis have simply lost faith in a system that only perpetuates itself.

However, in his government program, the current Iraqi prime minister, Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani, pledged to improve services for Iraqis and then expanded on his policies in an op-ed published on March 18, 2023, in which he again emphasized the importance of improving living conditions in Iraq. This provides hope, but more is needed than better school buildings and roads. Unless the new government reforms the pernicious muhasasa system, suppresses corruption, ends the impunity enjoyed by militias and rogue armed groups, and offers pathways for inclusive common citizenship, it will only provide a mere bandage for deep injuries, which will offer few prospects for building a nation, let alone a truly democratic polity.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.