The survival of Iraq matters
Upon the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, optimists hoped that Iraq, one of the few countries in the region endowed with both human and natural wealth, would emerge from years of isolation and animosity to assume its natural role as a force of stability and as a mitigator of regional conflicts.
Instead, unforgivable errors by the US-led occupation, compounded with decades of attrition due to oppression, war and sanctions and deeper innate problems and limitations of Iraqi society, conspired to reduce Iraq to a battleground of regional and factional rivalries and an open field for excesses and abuse.
A new dawn seemed to emerge with the selection of Haider al- Abadi as prime minister in the aftermath of the catastrophic loss of Mosul to the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014. A decent, energetic and unassuming figure, Abadi injected into the Iraqi political debate notions of genuine reform.
While being overwhelmed by events and outmanoeuvred by entrenched interests, Abadi maintained his resolve and continues to wage a focused battle towards a new system of governance, away from the autocracy but also away from the dysfunction of an incapacitated central government, a fertile ground for corruption and kleptocracy.
As valiant as Abadi’s efforts appear to be, the cards are stacked against him, unless determined support is offered by the United States.
Iraq faces two major conflicts. Handling any one of the two is an extremely demanding task; tackling both is a gargantuan burden.
Whether due to improvisation, incompetence, naiveté or to the deliberate subversion by detractors of a would-be forward-looking model of governance, Iraq inherited from the US-led occupation the structural shackles of a system that obstructs the emergence of a powerful centre without properly delegating authority to the periphery.
More dramatically, it is a system that features few checks against a steady descent towards kleptocracy — through which the political class appropriates much of the country’s wealth — and provides no path against the vertical segregation, along sectarian and provincial lines, in which thrive political parties with factional narratives.
With revenues deeply affected by the cataclysmic collapse of oil prices, the sustainability of the system was put in question but the resilience of entrenched interests remains too powerful to overcome.
Abandoned by the United States, which appears from Baghdad as a superpower whimsically revising its existential role on the global scene, but also ostracised by most of its neighbours who have failed to adjust to its new realities, Iraq was left open to Iranian influence — at times out of necessity, at others out of compulsion.
The Iranian “engagement” in Iraq is far from localised. A tried-and-true formula thoroughly tested in Lebanon sees Iran firmly taking root in segments of Iraqi society, bypassing normal international relations channels and creating parallel institutions with, at best, questionable loyalties.
In Lebanon, Iran introduced Hezbollah initially as a manifestation of a local Lebanese resistance momentum, before graduating it into an advance force with open allegiance to Tehran. In Iraq, Iran has multiple pressure points but the Popular Mobilisation Forces offer Tehran the best path towards creating a parallel Iraqi order, towards which Iraq itself has little leverage.
Can Abadi check the interests of kleptocracy, tame corruption and introduce a service and delivery oriented system of governance, while facing the Iranian Leviathan, in its many manifestations — not to mention the equally visceral threats of terrorism and secession?
Left to its own capacity, the prospects for an Iraqi recovery in which the dual goals of state power and sound governance are achieved are rather grim. Yet, the survival of Iraq is of vital importance, not solely for Iraqis, but for regional and international security and stability. Abadi thus needs regional and international support in disentangling the two severe conflicts that Iraq faces to get a fair chance of success.
Regional stakeholders in Iraqi stability must overcome the odd combinations of fatalism, short-sightedness and utter sectarianism that have plagued their policies towards this crucial country. Arab governments have plenty of remedial efforts to show to restore the broken bond between Iraq and its natural environment. The main reconsideration, however, is due in Washington, whose policy towards Iraq has been mostly rabbit-like.
Iraqis are evidently to blame for their plight but they are far from being the only ones. What Baghdad needs from Washington is a steady hand that recognises the gravity of the double challenge faced by Abadi, a challenge that needs to be split back into domestic and regional elements, with help and support provided accordingly.