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Corruption, incompetence to blame for Iraq’s failure, says author Zaid al-Ali

For much of the 11 years that have elapsed since the US-led invasion of 2003, Iraq has been a cauldron of killing. Last year was the deadliest year since 2008, with an estimated 8,955 killed in raging violence, a monthly average of 746, or almost 25 a day. For those who live or have lived in Baghdad, the stomach-hollowing sound of a suicide car-bomber destroying an International Zone checkpoint has been a grimly regular feature of life in the city, together with attacks on Iraqi politicians, shoppers in crowded markets, Iraqis queuing to join the police or those trying to enter a government ministry, a foreign embassy or the offices of a humanitarian agency.

At times, the steady flow of young men ready to blow themselves up for the so-called jihad seems unending. Columns of thick, black smoke drifting across the skyline from the latest explosion are a common sight in the former metropolis of the Abbasid empire, known without irony as the City of Peace. I lived in Baghdad from 2004 to 2005 and spent long periods in the city until 2010. Sometimes I wondered how anyone could even contemplate, let alone perpetrate, any act of violence in such mind-bending, paralysing heat. At other times, the sheer brutality of the climate seemed the only explanation for levels of slaughter that were otherwise unfathomable. “The heat in Baghdad hits you like concrete,” an Iraqi friend said to me once. “Imagine what it does to your head.”

In recent years, Shia death squads and Sunni insurgents have reshaped a city of long-established Sunni–Shia neighbourhoods. In 2003, the majority of Baghdad was mixed, with a number of Shia majority neighbourhoods, including Sadr City, and Sunni majority areas, such as Adhamiya and Hurriya in the north, Washash, Karkh and Mansur in the centre, and Saidiya in the south. By 2005, when the Ministry of Interior was under the control of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Badr Brigade, corpses were discovered daily, dumped in streets and rubbish tips across the capital. Overwhelmingly Sunni, their bodies carried the familiar signs of torture: cigarette burns on the skin, electric-drill holes in arms, legs and skulls and gouged-out eyes. Some had been garrotted; many had been shot in the back of the head. In 2006, when Iraq was in open civil war, the Mahdi Army of MuqtadaAl-Sadr, a firebrand from a distinguished clerical family, joined the fray, and Iraq grew ever more polarised.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. But then, Iraq has a long history of frustrating (often foreign) reformers’ good intentions. The early days of British Iraq were also full of promise. “We shall, I trust, make it a great centre for Arab civilisation and prosperity,” an excited Gertrude Bell wrote to her father in 1917 as British troops approached Baghdad. By 1920, as Iraq exploded into rebellion, a shattered Arnold Wilson, the civil commissioner for Mesopotamia, was describing himself as “a radical young man trying unsuccessfully to introduce radical principles into the wholly unfruitful and stony soil of a savage country where people do not argue but shoot”.

Optimism was again in abundance in 2003, for neocons and reformist Iraqis alike. “I came back with an idealistic and idealised vision of what life could and should be,” Samir Sumaidaie told me in 2012. In 2003, he had returned to Iraq from exile and opposition and taken up a string of senior political positions, the culmination of which was his appointment as ambassador to Washington. “I was soon disabused of that idealism and, in the last several years, I have become much more pessimistic and uncertain about the future.”

One suspects that Zaid al-Ali, the author of this brave, disturbing and excoriating survey of Iraq’s political cesspit, feels the same. A constitutional lawyer by training, he was a legal adviser to the United Nations in Iraq from 2005 to 2010. Like so many of the country’s returning exiles, he wanted to help build a new Iraq that could hold its head high after the horror of the Saddam Hussein years. (Let it also be said as an aside that there was no shortage of deeply venal returning exiles who treated the Iraqi treasury as a cash-cow.)

The Struggle for Iraq’s Future has an explosive beginning. Al-Ali describes how, even after it had been discovered that widely used British explosives detection equipment was completely bogus and ineffective – in 2013 the inventor was jailed for 10 years by a UK court. The prime minister Nuri Al Maliki flatly refused to accept this with a callous disregard for the truth and for untold numbers of Iraqi lives.

Much of this book, in fact, can be read as a passionate polemic against Al Maliki who, with the Americans, must surely take a great share of the responsibility for the unholy mess in which Iraq is now stewing.

Instead of seeking to build an Iraq that eschewed sectarianism, al-Ali writes, “his sole concern became to capture the state and to divide and conquer opponents, to remain in power for as long as possible”. By those limited, cynical criteria, so typical of Iraqi politics in living memory, and perhaps far beyond, Al Maliki’s efforts have been an unqualified success: parliament emasculated; armed forces shunted under his direct control; the judiciary nobbled; critics intimidated and silenced.

To be fair, the responsibility for Iraq’s current quagmire needs to be shared a little more widely than the current prime minister. Iraq’s political class is a wretched lot: criminally irresponsible, sectarian in outlook, corrupt beyond the average person’s most avaricious dreams, financially feckless and illiterate, intolerant of criticism, incapable of sharing power, blind to the national interest and, at the very highest levels of the state, murderously violent. Do not look here for the next winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

“As politicians obsessed over their incessant and violent power struggle, they deprioritised virtually everything else, including a number of long-standing problems that were literally threatening the state’s existence,” al-Ali writes. “These included rocketing unemployment, the decrepit public services (electricity, water, education), a failing framework to protect human rights that was exacerbating security risks, corruption and environmental disaster.”

For a country with a small population that essentially sits on a lake of oil to be in such a parlous state is perhaps the most damning indictment of Iraqi politics. This is not the place, one is tempted to conclude, for a well-intentioned, western-educated Iraqi constitutional lawyer.

It is only natural that constitutional lawyers should set great store by constitutions. It is, after all, what they do. Al-Ali’s detailed and thorough critique of the Iraqi constitution and the highly flawed process that engendered it, is principled and compelling. The recent history of Iraq, though, suggests that constitutions, however dismal or dazzling, are less of a problem than the men – and it is always men – who choose either to observe or ignore them.

To many of us in the West, the rule of law is a concept almost sacred in its power. The same is not true of Iraq, a place where, for centuries, strongmen have seized power and acted ruthlessly to preserve it. If Saddam Hussein was the Butcher of Baghdad, he was hardly alone in the long pantheon of Iraq’s rulers. Al-Mansur, the Abbasid caliph who founded Baghdad 1,300 years earlier in 762, was surely an equal claimant to the title. On his death in 775, the staunchly Sunni leader left a crypt full of exclusively Shia corpses.

Iraq’s economic model is brutally simple and limited: approximately 97 per cent of the national income comes from the oil sector. Yet the Baghdad government regularly proves incapable of even the most basic administration required to sustain it, such as issuing visas to the executives of oil companies with Iraqi government contracts. Little wonder that some are now heading for the exit, and hardly surprising amid the chaos that many commentators openly question the very sustainability of the Iraqi state as presently configured.

Although al-Ali is to be applauded for somehow managing to retain a degree of optimism after his relentlessly gloomy findings, his final chapter, in which he sets out a way ahead for beleaguered Iraq, is the least credible. His appetite for Iraqi democracy remains undimmed, although many Iraqis today will tell you the country just needs another strongman to put a lid on the violence – and to hell with the western checklist of democracy, good governance, rule of law, gender empowerment, human rights and so on.

Topping his list of prescriptions for a new Iraq is, perhaps predictably, a new constitution, which will deal with the control of the armed forces, the regulation of political parties, the oil sector and distribution of revenues, decentralisation and corruption.

He talks of the need to “build a new narrative” for Iraq, which is national and nonsectarian. No one would argue with that, but easier said than done in the land that has been the fulcrum of the Sunni-Shia divide since the Battle of Kerbala in 680. He is certainly right to praise many of his country’s social values, including solidarity, hospitality and generosity, and the honest, hard-working midlevel civil servants who struggle on amid the turmoil, but is that enough to build a democracy on?

The best that can be said is that it will take time to recover from decades of dictatorship and war and in this consistently turbulent corner of the world there is no guarantee of a happy ending. For now at least, democracy as understood in the West seems to be as alien to Iraq as the American soldiers who poured in in 2003. Al-Ali’s is a sensible voice screaming into the desert wind to stop the madness. Perhaps one day Iraqis will hear him.

Justin Marozzi’s latest book is A History of Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood, to be published in May by Penguin.