Iraq is not yet lost, but if we continue to ignore it, it soon will be
Open debate and free peaceful protest are rare in the Arab world. This month I saw both, when I traveled to Iraq.
I attended a conference where Iraqi men and women debated and publicly asked tough questions of their government. I also saw a small group of peaceful protesters on Oct. 1; at that point, security personnel calmly stood by.
Sixteen years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq faces daunting challenges, but it still has a degree of freedom that no country in the Middle East except Israel and perhaps Tunisia enjoy. If the U.S. continues to ignore Iraq, this hard-fought and fragile freedom will be lost.
Security and economic opportunities matter; the Iraqis protested this month because they are rightfully fed up with lack of basic services, widespread corruption and unemployment, as well as growing Iranian influence in their country.
This frustration doesn’t only come from Iraqi Sunnis, but from Shiites as well. Indeed, polls show that sectarianism in Iraq has declined in recent years, replaced by a revival of nationalism. This is a positive development.
Yet Iraq is at a crossroads. As the peaceful and spontaneous demonstrations spread, security services opened fire, and instated curfews and internet blackouts.
Over 100 protesters were killed and thousands injured. Iraqi President Barham Salih condemned the use of lethal force against protesters and promised to bring those responsible to justice. It is up to the Iraqi government to follow through with this promise, and to implement genuine reforms. But the U.S. cannot turn away.
In my time in Baghdad, my mind periodically turned to Russia, the country of my birth — a country that lost its opportunity in the 1990s to transition to a democracy. Vladimir Putin emerged as a result, reconsolidating power and eviscerating post-Soviet Russia’s nascent democracy.
I cannot speak for the many, but some in Baghdad privately expressed concern to me that if things don’t change soon, they feared another strongman could emerge.
That is the last thing they want, as the security promoted by would-be strongmen is often illusionary, and dictators historically bring ruin rather than renaissance to the country.
Iraqis are right to protest the deep and growing Iranian influence in their country, but the situation is even worse than they may realize. Other authoritarians also have their sights set on Iraq, and without American involvement, it is easier for them to make inroads.
The Kremlin — which fiercely opposed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 — had worked for years to return to Iraq, and has accelerated its efforts in recent years. Turkey too has recently agreed to support Iraq’s electricity, while Baghdad has also turned to China for financing reconstruction.
America’s Iraq fatigue set in years ago. Barack Obama, then a Democratic senator of Illinois, campaigned on getting American troops out of the country. It has been almost a decade since on then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta came to Baghdad to officially end the U.S. mission, creating a vacuum, which the Islamic State soon filled. Now increasingly Americans — and President Trump — talk of getting out of “endless wars.”
Much can be said about mistakes made after the 2003 invasion, but there is no denying it brought freedom. Forty percent of Iraqis were born after 2003, and know only Iraq’s shaky democracy. But as memory fades of Saddam, they risk believing the alternative promises more.
Iraq is not yet lost. But if we continue to ignore it, it soon will be.
Anna Borshchevskaya is senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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